proclaim 2016 keynote address

SB058On the 24 November, 1999, on a drizzly Wednesday evening, I was baptised in a parish in the north-western suburbs of Sydney. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background. A small but powerful group had accompanied me through the process of initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, learning to trust.

If a history of that parish were to be taken that date in November would not have stood out for any special recognition. I am sure it was for the most part an ordinary and customary year. However, beneath the everyday rhythm of this local parish it was for me a time of great consequence, of vital, spiritual breakthrough into the life of God to discover Christ as the total meaning of my life.

I share this to affirm that amidst the unfussy pews of the parishes we know and love the grace of Christ continues to move and mould hearts to his own. The local parish, even in its ordinariness, remains a privileged location of God’s transforming grace in the world.

However, as we take a wider view of the Australian parish we must admit that the possibility of personal spiritual breakthrough is not the same thing as the frequency of its happening.

This would be suggested by the challenges faced by our communities today, well known and rehearsed – declining weekly Mass attendance, now at a “critical moment” and leaning toward single digits across the nation; an ageing profile; the critical and chastening scrutiny of a Royal Commission; low morale in some quarters; low religious literacy among some of those we encounter; the pain of structural change and amalgamations directing energies inwards; and the by-product of diocesan decline, increasing managerialism within the culture of the Church that pulls towards the bureaucratisation of pastoral care.[1]

The Church in Australia can no longer rely on a ‘conveyer belt’ which was presumed to take Catholics from the cradle to the grave in faith, the assumption that a Catholic baptism and the mere fact of going to a Catholic school, for example, would secure a lifetime of committed discipleship. Historical circumstance and cultural momentum will no longer carry the Australian parish.

A new imagination is called forth and is demanded by the mission we have received, to make disciples and apostles of the baptised and the unbaptised, to be a leaven in the world as the sign and reality of the new freedom given in Jesus Christ. The flourishing of personal discipleship and apostolic outreach must become the motivating norm for our Church. For this to become a reality we are called to become more open and responsive to what God passionately desires to do through our parishes.

The Problematic


australia-allReflecting on the Australian Church, I would concur that the central challenge for parish life is this: we are caught between a call and desire for renewal and the weight of our own church culture towards maintaining the status quo. In this moment which cries out for new apostolic zeal, we can feel bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old even while new forms of parish life and mission long for expression.[2]

How do we address the culture of a local parish that may desire change but does not want to change, that desires to grow, be joyful and bear new fruit but contains within it organisational antibodies that tend to kill anything that is new? How do we move our communities towards radical, fervent outreach when a ‘convoy routine’ permits spiritual progress or cultural change only at the speed of the slowest ship? As intimated by Pope Francis, the insistence that “we have always done it this way” – less often said than expressed in passive resistance – reveals a complacency at odds with the urgency of disciple-making which has been tasked to this generation.[3]

What are the levers or the strategies of prophetic witness that can lead us into that future which God invites, that can embolden us to ‘step into’ this future that has not yet fully arrived? The future of the Australian parish and its redemptive mission in the world are tied up with the preparedness of our local communities to take a conscious step towards their own conversion.

The Need of Vision

Such a cultural shift within our parishes demands that we reclaim the ‘why’ of our existence as local communities of faith. While talk of parish evangelisation often leaps to the ‘what’ – to programs, tools and techniques, reflective perhaps of our hardy Australian pragmatism – the ‘why’ or rationale of our parishes cannot be taken for granted.

On the ground, we appreciate the significance of the ‘why’ for our people when they receive the sacraments, those of initiation and besides. We earnestly want their ‘why’ to be Jesus, not merely school enrolment or unthinking convention. We understand the difference this ‘why’ makes to their likely future participation in the life of faith and the Church. We know that this ‘why’ distinguishes the disciple from the ‘what’ of the consumer who arrives asking ‘what do I get here’ rather than ‘who am I called to be here’. If we seek to grow our parishes for mission, we need to clarify and communicate the ‘why’ of our total parish life and this is called vision.

baptism-adultFundamentally we are called to be a Church of the Great Commission. This is our vision, the ‘northern star’ guiding our resolve. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). As it has been pointed out, in our Catholic Church we have certainly learnt to “go” and can claim a presence at all corners of the earth. We “baptise” and confirm relentlessly. We “teach” and catechise great numbers in our schools and sacramental programs. However, our ability as Church to “make disciples” remains in question, as raised by the pastoral realities for the Australian Church we have explored.[4] A local parish vision that reclaims the Great Commission as our primary calling clarifies the purpose of our community and makes it possible for others to become a part of that purpose.

It is worth noting that a parish vision for the making of disciples and of ongoing apostolic support for the laity can arise from our hopes as well as our laments. Our restlessness and frustrations too can be helpful signs pointing us beyond what we have in hand, acting as a mirror image of our deepest desires for our community. When a bold vision of spiritual vitality is discerned it supplies the energy and constant challenge to the ethos and practices of a parish as it journeys toward that goal.

Within our Catholic culture, some voices express resistance to the need of an articulate vision and pastoral planning for our parishes and dioceses on the basis that this is a bureaucratic exercise, more at home in the Business Review Weekly than in our Church. Others oppose talk of setting a ‘vision’ for our communities on the basis that it second-guesses the providence of God whose Spirit indeed leads where it will.

As a community of faith we certainly do not have a road map or certainty for our future, a future that belongs to God. However, we do have a story of the kind of people, the kind of disciples, and the kind of communities we want to be as we make our journey towards that unknown future.

14546210When we communicate a vision of the parish, how we seek to respond to God in this context, in this time, in this local community, when we can articulate a vision of the kinds of spiritual growth we are seeking to raise up in our people, this passionate purpose becomes the heartbeat or pulse of a parish. Conveniently, and not incidentally, a renewed vision provides the case for change.

The alternative to a parish communicating vision is a community standing in the silence of an unquestioned routine. The lifeblood of the parish might occasionally receive a boost or uptick through the initiative of individuals or the occasional event but without a sustained vision to consistently stimulate a higher life, the pulse of the parish inevitably slows and returns to maintenance, to the pace of survival rather than growth.

While no substitute for the parish, it must be acknowledged that the ecclesial movements in their charisms and narratives of holiness have shown us the power of a story to tell, as do the saints, those ‘bright patterns of holiness’ who image or supply a vision for the divine touching human lives.

I would like to suggest that in establishing its vision and promoting cultural change, a parish can gain much from imagining or visualising itself ten times better rather than only ten per cent better. This is because a small goal will tend to lead us to incremental changes that are based upon the existing rhythm, resources, programs and assumptions of the parish, leading to only slow or grinding progress.[5] Aiming for the sky, however, forces us to question our community assumptions and the fruit of our present culture, sheds bold and even new light on the taken-for-granted details of the everyday. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom was so grand that it cast fresh light on who could eat at table. It was so immense that it gave meaning to tiny seeds. It was so extravagant it could sustain meaning in a Gethsemane night, even on the Cross.

It is no accident that the missionary determination of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel begins with a grand dream, by looking out, not looking down.[6] In any case, if we do not cast a vision for our parishes, the question will inevitably rise from the pews, ‘Are we going anywhere?’

Prayer 1_2It is worth noting that when a parish makes a commitment to a clear vision of personal discipleship and spiritual community, presenting this before its people, other good things begin to flow. With a vision pointing the parish beyond its own concerns and circumstance, the parish can begin to move from a culture that engages people to build up the Church to become a Church that builds up people.

When we routinely engage people to build up the Church, the focus inevitably falls on maintenance and functionalism. A parish calls people forward to maintain its own life, its ministries, functions and tasks for which there is never enough human labour. We engage people, in other words, to ‘fill the gaps’ and out of a mindset of deficiency, with the best of our energy, dedication and resources flowing into the upkeep of our established groups, ministries and schedules. However, our parishes are not called to be factories, to keep the cogs turning over at any cost.

We cannot confuse our means with our end which is the abundant spiritual life of our people. As it has been said, ‘if you build the Church, you rarely get disciples. If you make disciples, you always get the Church.’ Parishes begin to change their culture towards mission when all forms of its preaching shift from a focus on what it wants from people to what it wants for them.

When a community understands itself as existing not for its own preservation but for the spiritual and personal change of its members and non-members, then all that the parish undertakes, its programs, groups, structures, and finance, will be seen and considered in the light of its mission to make disciples. We will begin to measure our life not by the standards of conservation – the managing of internal concerns, the parish patrimony, nest egg or tranquillity – but by the standards of our outwards mission. We will begin to gauge our life not only by our seating capacity but also by our sending capacity, and the extent of the spiritual fruit and personal change we nurture into life.

Increase over Addition

In reflecting on the Church’s living tradition and the experience and best practices of growing Catholic communities, I would like to suggest four elements as being integral to the renewal of parish culture toward deeper discipleship and wider evangelisation.

In sharing these suggestions, I am mindful that when a community or group has a vision but no strategy to achieve it, it will tend to simply add on new programs and activities to an already busy routine hoping this will affect a difference. Yet we know, even implicitly, that addition is not synonymous with increase, that ‘more’ is not always tantamount to ‘better’.

Indeed, we are learning on a national, diocesan and parish level that a “spaghetti” approach to Church life, over-programmed with a splattering of disconnected activity, tends to encourage silos rather than unity or strength of mission. This is because events, programs and groups compete for space on the common calendar, rivalling one another for the same pool of finite resources, increasingly busy people and limited attention. If we become content with the unrolling of copious activity, without heed of the fruit these initiatives bear or otherwise, we in fact succumb to the “spiritual worldliness”, or busyness for its own sake, of which Pope Francis warns.[7]

So, to four principles drawn from growing and evangelising communities that can take us beyond the comfort of routine and the opposite temptation of mere addition.

Foundations of an Evangelising Parish

1. Proclaiming Christ

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyFirst of all, at the heart of evangelising communities is the proclamation of the Good News, specifically the kergyma which is the basic truths of our Christian faith. This word kerygma, or keryssein in Greek, may not be very familiar to us but it in fact appears in the New Testament some nine times, and refers to the very heart of the Gospel, the core message of the Christian faith that all believers are called to believe and proclaim.

The words of Pope Paul VI still challenge us today, “There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.[8] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We note that this kerygma stands apart from the catechesis or instruction in the fuller doctrinal and moral teaching (didache) that the Church notes is to take place after someone has accepted the initial kerygma and been baptised. We can in fact school people in our parishes, in the RCIA for instance, about the Church, various themes of theology, the intricacies and rubrics of liturgy and so on but with slight reflection on the life and person of Jesus whom our people are first called to encounter, though our preaching, priorities and witness. The heart of our Gospel is Jesus, what he has done, and continues to bring about for us and within us.

As Pope Francis makes clear,

. . . we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelising activity and all efforts at Church renewal. This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.[9]

There is no sense that we ever graduate from hearing this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the proclamation for which our Church exists and that calls to be preached in our liturgies, parent and children’s formation, in our youth ministries and initiatives of social outreach, in the development of our parish teams and staff, our talk of parish finance, structural change and carparks. We are constantly challenged to re-centre our parishes, our total life, on this central proclamation for it is the sole source of discipleship and evangelisation. There is no other.

Jesus Christ 2The heart of evangelisation is to announce who Jesus is, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the man who is God, who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. It is to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ who is with us even now and opens up for us the way to life without end. Evangelising parishes proclaim Jesus’ ascension, his seating at the right hand of the Father as King, and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which reveals Christ and even enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and it is this Spirit who empowers the Church, who empowers us, to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our own lives and in this moment of the world’s history. Finally, this Good News of Christ calls us to conversion, to repent and believe in this Gospel, calling for a change of life in the light of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ whose life we share by baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, in communion with his mystical body, the Eucharist, and by our communion with His ecclesial body, the Church. In prioritising this proclamation, we seek to build up a culture in which Jesus is not swept into our parish story intermittently but our parishes and lives are swept into his.

As a former media buyer, I am conscious that corporations spend millions after millions of dollars each year, even each week, to get people into their shop. It is humbling, then, to recognise that each year thousands upon thousands of people come into our ‘shop’, walk through the front doors of our parishes, without always knowing why they are there or their stance towards the saving Gospel or proclamation which is the lifeblood of our communities.

And yet, whether entering the parish via the door of our sacramental programs or school enrolment, walking through our doors on account of baptisms, marriages or funerals, or for the sake of their children, these persons fully expect to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by our parishes whether they ultimately accept that saving message or otherwise.

It is essential to our future that our truth is proclaimed with courage and with faith, not as something but as someone to whom we owe our life and devotion, someone who calls not to be a part of our life but our very existence and the total shape of our living.

2. Growing Personal Discipleship

FootprintsHowever, the bold proclamation of Jesus’ name, life, promises, Kingdom and mystery, in itself is not sufficient for the growth of a missionary culture in our parishes. As a second foundation, evangelising parishes cultivate personal discipleship, create room and opportunity for a personal response to the Good News proclaimed. The call to be a disciple is a gift but it also involves a choice and personal decision that cannot be delegated to any other.

In its personal dimension, the heart of all evangelisation could be described as one person telling another person how the encounter with Jesus Christ has changed their life, one beggar telling another beggar how he found bread. This is indeed the living tradition of our Church, ‘hands clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[10] Personal witness, testimony and exchange are at the heart of personal and spiritual change. It is our long and ancient experience as Church that programs do not make disciples; disciples make disciples.

In speaking of personal change, it is a sober reality that 60% of those who attend Mass in Australia reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[11] It is clear that we cannot adopt a mindset that assumes the sacraments, or the school RE program for that matter, will simply ‘take care of it’. While this emphasis on personal faith may seem obvious, it underlines the fact that we cannot assume that disciples just happen because we have a parish and people show up.

An effective process of evangelisation in our communities will need to recognise the various stages of personal growth through which people journey on their way to the Gospel. A parish of personal, realised faith is something different than the motions of a crowd that produces ‘conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises’.[12] While the conversion of our people always remains the work of the Holy Spirit, we can help or hinder that process depending on how we walk with people.

The people in our pews and those besides are at varying levels of faith and commitment. When we can recognise with honesty where our people are in the story of discipleship, we can begin to engage them in ways that are fitting to their disposition – building bridges of trust with those that do not yet have a basic positive association with Christ, the Church or ourselves as Christians; for the curious, asking questions to encourage their initial desire to know more and sharing with them our own story of faith as it has become central to our life; for those exhibiting spiritual openness, expressing our willingness to pray for them and asking questions to validate their openness though they may not yet be actively seeking to know God.[13]

The essence of evangelisation is to engage with others on the road to Emmaus as they ask their questions, leading them to an encounter with Christ who is, in fact, already present to them, already active in their lives awaiting the ‘yes’ of a spiritual awakening, an assent of faith.

jp11 version 2Bringing together these first principles of evangelising communities, we hear St John Paul II affirm, “Faith is born of preaching and every ecclesial community draws its origin and life from the personal response from every believer to that preaching”.[14] It is both the preaching of the kerygma and personal conversion that sustains and grows a missionary culture.

Parishes do not grow when their people do not. The call to spiritual growth challenges ourselves for each of us shapes the Church and its mission by our personal participation in it. The extent to which we grow in faith and holiness will be the extent to which the Church grows in faithfulness and holiness. 

As leaders we must realise that everything we do or say teaches people something about the Church. Ecclesial operators or ‘professionals’ can never replace the holiness of saints, managerialism the spirit of charity. As we have learned from painful history, it is entirely possible for parish leaders to ostensibly live a life for Christ without living a life in Christ. Personal conversion calls for change within us as much as others in the community of faith.

3. Discipleship in the Midst of the Church

sbPersonal discipleship also calls for the nourishment of an ecclesial community of faith. Evangelising parishes create disciples in the midst of the Church.

We know that discipleship is vulnerable without the ongoing, living support from other Catholic disciples. Significantly, a parish sustains personal faith not only through a shared life, mutual witness and spiritual support but by opening individual lives to more possibilities for the life of faith, vocation and holiness than we might otherwise recognise, to a vision that discipleship is possible even in this way.

In the same way as a number of first European settlers arrived in Australia assuming they were, if you like, dragging land and civilisation behind them, we can be tempted to consider our increasing diversity as Australian parishes as something which is being added ‘from the outside’ rather than a theological fact and principle of our life from its earliest beginnings at Pentecost. The challenge and companionship of fellow Christians, diverse in cultural expression of faith and piety, liberates and enables a faith richer and deeper than what we could gain on our own.

How might our parishes better integrate and express difference? Research and experience tells us that at the heart of all evangelising and growing communities are small groups as a vital instrument of ecclesial support and differentiated unity. I am not aware of any growing Christian community that does not have an economy of small groups in place to deepen at the same time its members’ experience of Jesus and the Church as encountered in fellow Christians. The experience of liturgy alone can render it difficult for persons to feel instantly at home or connect with others intimately in the context of faith. Most of us have come to the heart of the Church through a small group of some description, whether this was a youth group, a prayer group, a parent or family group.

The introduction of small groups within our parishes and an accompanying culture of invitation, one that communicates in effect that ‘we are incomplete without you’, will enable people to be brought into and nurtured by a supportive network of disciples.

While speaking intimately with one another about our lived experience and friendship with Jesus can be counter-cultural for many Catholics, I am heartened by the fact that no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. We are similarly challenged to offer our people the small group of discipleship and learning that they never knew they needed, an experience of personal relationship with Jesus and his Gospel in the midst of others.

baby_plant.28104733While our vision needs to be as large as the Kingdom, our implementation of that vision needs to begin small. With encouragement for us, it is worth noting that when large evangelical and Pentecostal communities are asked what they seek for their future it is to establish smaller, stable communities in the midst of a local neighbourhood, offering a consistency and intimacy of worship and local service in personal connection with the wider community. In other words, what many megachurches are seeking is a parish.

We have already in our Church the scale of community to foster powerful spiritual relationships with one another, by small groups and other means. It is not a matter of structure but our capacity for interrelationship and mutual trust in faith, our ability to grow together and also our capacity for collegiality.[15]

It may be news to some that a national ecclesial event, a Plenary Council, has been proposed by the bishops of Australia for 2020, a council to embrace not only the faith of the bishops but to take up the faith of the Australian Church, the collective vision, gifts and charisms for our common future. To be collegial is to be receptive of the faith with which Christ has already endowed the Church. As Australian Catholics we ought to place great hope in our collective ability to discern a future and are challenged not only to have faith in God but in our capacity to respond to God as his people.

To anchor this potential for collegiality, shared discernment and decision-making in our parishes, our capacity for co-responsibility for mission begins within the local parish team and the parish pastoral council as the most immediate opportunities for living the theology we profess.

The risk of not attending to the faith of the faithful as expressed in the local parish, as much as a national plenary council, is no less than turning away possibilities, the manifold charisms and vocations of lay men and women, which God continually offers to us. An Australian parish, and an Australian Church for that matter, that is not discerning God’s call cannot hope to grow because it cannot see what God has already given and deeply invites.

4. Missionary Orientation

Picture193Finally, we recognise that the proclamation of the Gospel, the call to personal discipleship and the life of the Christian community are not for their own sake but for the sake of the world. All that has gone before must bear fruit in our connection with others beyond our communities of faith, beyond the boundaries of the parish.

In his own way I think Pope Francis has reminded us time and again, with a certain cheek, that the parish is not an organised way to avoid the issues of the world. The parish is not a spiritual refuge or a hotel for the spiritually comfortable. Rather it is a hospital or wellspring open to all who bear wounds or thirst, who await a personal answer for their hope on the road of humanity.

A premier ecclesiologist in the English-speaking world, Joseph Komonchak, reminds us:

To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.[16]

To be a community of disciples is not to stand apart from the world or hover above it but to be within the space of the world differently. To be a Catholic parish, to be a community of believers, is not to withdraw into a ghetto of like-minded individuals but to speak, witness and inhabit this world, a world which is very much in our hands, with a perspective and a commitment to a person whom we believe illuminates its depths and heights.

I believe parishes will move to a missionary footing when they believe in their heart of hearts that there is a harvest, that Christ is preparing people for us to reach, and that we have been anointed by our baptism to speak, live and act by God’s Word in our world.

A missionary parish will prepare people for this assignment, preaching and teaching that the Christian life it is not about choosing between Christ and the world, as if they were utterly opposed. Rather, as the twentieth century spiritual master Thomas Merton observes, Christian life is about choosing Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[17] God’s mission calls us to a constant orientation beyond ourselves, so that the world can witness the spirit of Christ in action, can see and come to believe.

Summary

I suggest four lenses by which we might review and renew the evangelising mission of our parishes:

  • proclaim the name, teaching, promises, Kingdom, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God (the ‘kerygma’)
  • call forth a personal response to this Good News
  • foster discipleship in the midst of the Church
  • and send these disciples into the world in constant missionary outreach

I believe a parish requires all four elements without exemption, so as not to:

  • proclaim the Gospel without personal conversion (we can preach the Gospel and be entirely orthodox, proclaim a sound understanding of the faith, but as Pope Benedict XVI be merely ‘proper’ but ultimately loveless, bearing little actual fruit in the lives of our people);
  • we can experience personal conversion but minimise or castoff the influence of the Church (an erroneous sense that it would feel more like real worship if it was ‘me’ praying alone, or a sense that the parish community is something I could rather live without; a ‘private’ Christianity withdrawn from the varieties of discipleship that God offers us in others);
  • we can develop an ecclesial life and participate in the Church’s public life but without personal conversion and a living relationship with Jesus (merely ‘attending Mass’ out of custom or working within the Church or school without an attachment to the Gospel, working only for Christ but not working with him);
  • or we can proclaim the Gospel, foster personal conversion and a commitment to the Church without any implication for the wider world, displaying a forgetfulness of the fact that we are ‘sent’ as missionary disciples by our baptism to share the life of Christ we ourselves have received.

When our communities grow in these foundations, a culture of discipleship and evangelisation begins to thrive.

candlesIndeed, it can be seen that these foundations encourage and direct our efforts in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which the tenderness and compassion of God calls for announcement. An evangelising community proclaims the mercy of God whose face is Jesus Christ, nurtures our people to know themselves as personally forgiven by God and brought into the freedom of a new life, offers the experience of forgiveness and compassion within the life of the Church, sacramentally and in the companionship of fellow Christians; and equips and emboldens the forgiven to ‘go out’ to share mercy with others who too await someone to pour oil on their wounds, who await the Good News given in Jesus Christ, who is the promise and presence of God’s mercy.

Conclusion

SB012We cannot change that of which we are not aware. We must name and face head on the present challenges for our culture as Australian parishes, parishes that I believe desire to be missionary and in their heart of hearts wish to receive the grace of God who still desires much for our parish life.

However, receiving this grace entails movement on our part, a shift from where we stand and a constant reaching out beyond the complacency of routine or a simplistic ‘silver bullet’ mentality that holds only one way, one program or technique as the exclusive key to growth. We are called to cultural change, to change together and personally which is the perennial challenge of mission.

To build a preaching, discipling, gathering and missioning Church calls for a multidimensional approach filled with bold vision, personal faith, mutual support, and the resolve to be our deepest selves in Christ for the sake of the world.

Ultimately, it means responding with hope and trust in what God can do for us, with us and through us, even on a drizzly Wednesday night in the well-worn pews of the parishes we know and love.

 

References:

[1] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 8.

[2] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2014), 53.

[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 33.

[4] Mallon, Divine Renovation, 19-20.

[5] The fatalistic expression “that won’t work” commonly emerges from a perspective that measures new ideas by the life that we currently know.

[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 27.

[7] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 93-97.

[8] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.

[10] John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit as cited in Robert A. Ludwig, Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 61.

[11] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[12] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), 43.

[13] A helpful schema of various stages or ‘thresholds’ of discipleship is provided in Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 125-184.

[14] Pope Paul VI, Redemptoris Missio 44.

[15] The challenge of collegiality for our Church recalls the remarks of the late Ukranian Catholic Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk who dismissed Roman synods as nothing more than “international study days”.

[16] Joseph A. Komonchak, “Identity and Mission in Catholic Universities”, 12. Available at https://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hubbard-lecture.pdf. Accessed 25 August 2016.

[17] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 153.

parish transformation by divine renovation

DRI recently returned from the Divine Renovation 2016 Conference which provided an opportunity to learn from and be immersed in the experience behind the book of the same name. For those who may not be familiar with this work, Divine Renovation tells the story of St Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a parish led by Fr James Mallon in collaboration with his senior leadership team, parish team, pastoral council and an army of lay leaders, that has become a genuinely evangelising community that brings people into encounter with Jesus through a well-developed discipleship process (you can view highlights of the Conference here).

I was privileged to attend the conference as a guest of Alpha Australia which has become a significant point of connection for Christian leaders in our country, not only from our own church but from non-Catholic communities equally committed to transformation and missionary outreach.

While no silver bullet and a steadily evolving reality, the way of Divine Renovation is among the best models of parish-based evangelisation I have seen and experienced firsthand. It provides a substantial model of the evangelising Catholic parish that complements its predecessors and contemporaries, including the Church of the Nativity, the focus of the book Rebuilt.

As shared elsewhere, the Church of the Nativity in Baltimore targets its weekend experience toward the nuclear family and the God-seeker, with as few barriers to participation of children and newcomers as possible. By its focus on the newcomer (embodied in the personified target market, ‘Timonium Tim’) Nativity tends to function as a ‘personal’ or oratory parish with a dedication to reaching unchurched Gen X parents and their children. Overall Nativity functions well as a parish-wide enquiry or pre-catechumenal process in the context of community. 

It remains a privileged time to learn from these various models of parish, acknowledging their range of contexts, and to take up the challenge of grounding the best of these growing Catholic communities in our own pastoral life.

The Vision of Divine Renovation

FJMSo where to start with Divine Renovation? First and foremost St Benedict’s has been driven by the desire for a model of a renewed parish. While many have looked to the ecclesial movements for discipleship, authentic community and evangelisation, Fr James is adamant and passionate about the fact that our Catholic parishes do not have to be centres of mediocrity or minimalism in which people come forward for the sacraments but little else. Parishes can yet be evangelising communities in which dynamic Christian life, conversion and discipleship can be born and raised.

Divine Renovation identifies a principle issue for our parishes as a forgetfulness of who we are, our identity, and this is significant for what we do is rooted in who we are. As underscored by Pope Francis among others, we have often lost sight of our identity as a missionary Church, a Church of the Great Commission that is called to ‘go and make disciples’, to baptise and to teach (Matt. 28:19-20).

While our customary focus in parish life has been on catechesis and a sacramental life, these have often presumed discipleship or otherwise not confronted head on the reality that many of our people have not encountered the Lord personally, made him the total meaning of their life or yet given their life to him. This vital, spiritual breakthrough is the purpose for which our parishes exist. What is most often lacking in the culture of our parishes is not first and foremost knowledge of the faith but the passion and desire for ongoing conversion and mission that emerges from a personal encounter with Jesus.

This initial realisation, which supports our movement toward cultural change, recalls a question that was once posed to me at a parish pastoral council meeting. What is the greatest stumbling block to the mission of evangelisation? It is a lack of faith and passion that the Gospel is worth sharing.

churchpewsThe confrontation of Divine Renovation, and much of the contemporary literature on evangelisation in the Catholic Church, is the suggestion that many of the people in our pews are not sufficiently converted, are not yet disciples or furthermore missionary disciples. As reiterated at the conference, while much energy can be dedicated in parishes on managing decline in our pews (or the limited number of our people actively involved in parish ministry and mission), our pews and mission will remain dormant or listless unless this first radical and personal conversion takes place (as it was shared mere “bums in pews are not going to change the world”).

In speaking of a change of parish culture, we find ourselves as Church caught between an experience of a call and desire for renewal and the weight of church culture towards maintaining the status quo (Divine Renovation 53). While many of our usual approaches to disciple-making are not as effective as we would like (e.g. the mixed results of our sacramental programs and low retention rates following RCIA), Church leaders and teams are so often bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old while new realities beg for expression. It was acknowledged that our parish cultures can also struggle with hope, which can be lost through hurt or disappointment. Our people can be fatigued, even exhausted, again by layers of expectations of the status quo and a system that wants change but refuses to change, and disillusionment and cynicism can set in when ministries and initiatives bear little or no fruit.

This time calls forth bold and passionate parish leadership and vision at this time, to see what is not yet, to create room for change (which involves a departure from the status quo), and then to move towards a new hope-filled possibility.

Divine Renovation in Practice

Below I have attempted to summarise the practical steps towards parish transformation as offered by St Benedict’s Parish, all of which can be found in the recently released Divine Renovation Guidebook. Happily, this guidebook reiterates many of the principles of pastoral planning that are the focus of this blog but brings great life, example and vitality to these principles.

1. Forming the right team. St Benedict’s values excellence and this informs their leadership team which operates on four key foundations: unanimity of vision, a balance of strengths, healthy conflict on the basis of mutual trust among members, and a great deal of vulnerability for leaders of parishes in maintenance mode are likely to be fairly competent in their routine but missionary leaders will soon be in unfamiliar territory, risking the unfamiliar and the untried for the sake of mission.

These principles also translate to the St Benedict’s parish pastoral council. All members have experienced Alpha themselves (the parish’s primary tool for evangelisation) and have read Divine Renovation so that all members share the same vision, a vision which is non-negotiable (however, how the parish might achieve that vision certainly is). It is also telling that the St Benedict’s parish pastoral council is not filled with ‘representatives’ from parish ministry groups, an approach taken by many communities, as this runs the risk of a focus on particular needs within the parish. Instead, the parish privileges passionate dreamers on their council who focus only on the ‘big picture’ of the parish and who have the practical skills to form, strategise and articulate plans to fulfil the parish vision.

IMG_1986In terms of team roles, it is worth noting that the parish pastoral council at St Benedict’s is dedicated solely to five year strategic planning, while the parish team dedicates itself to implementing those rolling plans through the laity they engage. Importantly, the parish team works on the organisation, not in it, are not “doers” of ministry but rather leaders who call forth and equip others who “do”.

It is a decentralised model of mission that carries implications for our priests. The pastors of St Benedict’s do not function as personal chaplains for every parishioner (as is often the case in our parishes or at least an expectation within communities) but as leaders out of team and champions of the parish vision for evangelisation, including by ‘preaching the announcements’. In seeking a balance of strengths with its teams, St Benedict’s uses the ‘Clifton Strengths Finder’ from Gallup to evaluate natural strengths among its leadership team. I would suggest that Sherry Weddell’s ‘Catholic Spiritual Gifts Inventory’ could also be used as a complementary resource to discern, develop and draw upon the gifts of the Spirit present among parish leaders in the most fitting areas of leadership. Other suggested tools for team evaluation recommended by the parish include the Birkman Method of evaluation and Myers Briggs.

2. As intimated, missionary parishes such as St Benedict’s Parish form and communicate a clear vision for their life and mission. To have a vision is to bring the hope of the future into the present. Where do we want to be in three or five years’ time? This vision can even emerge from our current frustrations in parish life for our recognised limits can be the mirror image of possibilities we would like to pursue into the future.

The parish vision at St Benedict’s is as follows, “Saint Benedict is a healthy and growing faith community that brings people to Christ, forms disciples, and sends them out to transform the world. Our members commit to worship, to grow, to serve, to connect and to give”. This grand vision for the parish provides the image of a preferred future that always remain a challenge for the community rather than an achievement or goal from which the parish will someday graduate. Complementing this grand vision is the purpose statement of the parish which makes concrete and drives the daily commitment of the parish to achieve the vision: “To form disciples who joyfully live out the mission of Jesus Christ”.

Again, it becomes the responsibility of the priest to constantly and continually communicate and preach this vision as the leader of the community and to ensure the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of parish life and mission becomes transparent and compelling to staff and the parish at large. Of interest to pastoral planners, a large scale consultation process did not inform the formation of the parish vision at St Benedict’s though the parish team and ministry leaders contributed to its creation. With a large dose of reality, Fr James noted that while everyone wants a joyful and missionary Church, people can react badly when you begin implementing change to achieve this reality. It is a sober reminder that change for evangelisation demands leadership, not popularity or perfect agreement (indeed, it was an absolute democracy that delivered us Barabbas).

As a part of its vision, it is worth noting that St Benedict’s has described a disciple by the following qualities, again to establish the parameters of what they are seeking to achieve. A disciple in the vision of St Benedict’s Parish, and indeed for the Church, is one who:

  • has a personal relationship with Jesus
  • can and does share faith with others
  • is open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • has knowledge and love of the Scriptures
  • knows basic Catholic theology
  • has a daily prayer life
  • experiences real Christian community
  • has a commitment to Sunday Eucharist
  • celebrates the Sacrament of Reconciliation
  • can pray spontaneously out loud when asked (this in fact presumes the practice of personal, daily prayer as aforementioned)
  • serves in ministry
  • and sees his or her life as a mission field (Divine Renovation Guidebook, p.59).

In forming a parish vision it is also necessary to have a clear understanding of where we are, as we can only responsibly plan for the future on the basis of an assessment of present reality. We cannot build houses on sand. From a pastoral planning perspective this is where demographics and other forms of data can be helpful as well as an inventory of the ministries and activities already present in the community of faith. Information and not anecdotes form the basis of rigorous parish assessment.

In explaining the need for an initial assessment of parish life, Fr James engages the analogy of a shopping mall – to find what we are looking for involves a clear vision of what we seek to attain. However, before we can walk towards our goal we need to find the “You are here” dot on the shopping mall map to determine our starting point.

In its parish assessment, St Benedict’s draws on five systems of a healthy church as articulated by the evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, California. The parish assessment process can involve a leadership team or parish pastoral council categorising its current activities under these five categories to develop a self-understanding of where it is, where it needs to grow, and what may be missing from our parish life in the pursuit of health and missionary vitality. These five systems are:

  • Worship (including Eucharist, prayer meetings and times of praise experienced in small groups)
  • Evangelisation (involving proclamation of the kerygma, the basics of our Christian faith, and bring people beyond and within the community to a personal encounter with Jesus)
  • Discipleship (meaning the lifelong process of growing, maturing and learning, involving catechesis but also prayer life and discernments of gifts or charisms)
  • Fellowship (the experience and commitment to meaningful community in the body of Christ)
  • Ministry (meaning here service to others and so referring also, in this model of parish health, to what may be more particularly understood by theology as ‘mission’)

3. Planning with priorities. Planning can then takes place in each of these five areas, commencing with a SWOT analysis of each of the five areas, and then identifying goals, action steps, owners of each action, completion dates and forms of measurement to respond to each quadrant (e.g. a mini plan for the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for ‘worship’). As a further example in analysing their own efforts in the area of evangelisation, Alpha was identified as a strength at St Benedict’s while their weakness was ‘invitation’ and so this provided the basis for stronger promotion and invitation by the parish priest and team, supported by the overall communications efforts of the parish. In working with parishes over the years it is undoubted that this depth of planning requires significant leadership with the right skill set and experience in planning, underlining again the need for discernment of the parish pastoral council members who can effectively lead this work forwards. The Divine Renovation Guidebook provides a 6 month planning guide on pages 106-115 which parishes will find helpful, while a basic parish planning template I have used with local parishes is available here.

Given that all parish resources are limited, the planning exercise also needs to prioritise what gets done first and what is implemented later. Prioritising ensures the best use of constrained resources, improves the speed of decision making, brings order to chaos, and reduces parish stress. The conference affirmed that setting priorities is among the most important things that parish leadership can do. It will involve the decision to say ‘no’ to good things in order to choose the best things. People will be disappointed with the selection of particular priorities apart from others but this selectivity frees a parish to pursue its vision beyond the layers of expectation that tend to privilege the status quo (i.e. maintenance).

4. In its order of priority, St Benedict’s formed and follows a process of discipleship which it describes as its “Game Plan”. For me, this is the genius of the culture of St Benedict’s. There are seven ingredients of this process as seen in the diagram below:

The Game Plan B & W

As explained by the Divine Renovation Guidebook (p.164-165), ‘Invitational Church’ is not a program but an attitude and parish culture in which St Benedict’s continually seeks to grow. The parish measures ‘success’ not necessarily by the number that show up but the number of invitations that are made, recognising the responsibility of the parish lies with the offer not the response (it is encouraging to note that if a parish has some 1,000 people in church, and half of them invited one person each week, and one in five of all those asked said yes, it would bring some 100 new visitors to the parish on any given weekend).

The emphasis on ‘Alpha’ as a way of ‘on boarding’ people into the life of discipleship recognises that the Catholic Mass presumes so much, being as it is worship for the initiated. St Benedict’s encourages all who wish to be part of the parish to take Alpha. The Alpha process provides an experience of hospitality and community life, exposure to the kerygma and group discussion that is welcoming of both newcomers and more established Catholics, recognises that people seek to belong before they believe and behave, and forms the primary evangelising tool at St Benedict’s Parish.

splash-logoIn discussion with facilitators of Alpha in Australia, it has been recommended that Alpha be first piloted by your parish with a mix of parish staff, parish pastoral council members, committed parishioners who may not already be involved in a ministry, and new Catholics. It is notable that St Benedict’s engages Alpha not only to initiate the journey of discipleship but to develop lay leaders, as a part of their RCIA process, and as an element of marriage preparation for couples.

Following Alpha parishioners are invited to join a Connect Group (an economy of small groups in the parish, of around 25 to 35 people, led by two couples, that meet together fortnightly in the homes of parishioners for a shared meal, singing and prayer, a talk by a member and intercessory prayer with one another) or to be a leader in the next series of Alpha (the parish seeks to have first time members comprise half of their Alpha leadership teams and to move those who have already served on the Alpha team to other ministries, thereby creating a continuous leadership pipeline).

Next, the hope is that every parishioner will also be involved in a ministry, an involvement that is shepherded from within a Connect Group. On reflection, this formation of Connect Groups is vital to the success of the parish as it provides a more intimate or personal experience of Church, and people are brought to maturity and accompanied in these groups by an encouragement towards ministry and mission. This twinning of accompaniment and mission neatly aligns with Pope Francis’ teaching in Evangelii Gaudium when he notes,

Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation. Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus provides an example of this accompaniment and formation which takes place in the midst of apostolic activity. Entrusting them with the mission of remaining in each city to “put in order what remains to be done” (Tit 1:5; cf. 1 Tim 1:3-5), Paul also gives them rules for their personal lives and their pastoral activity. This is clearly distinct from every kind of intrusive accompaniment or isolated self-realisation. Missionary disciples accompany missionary disciples (EG 173).

We learn from Connect Groups that healthy parishes make disciples that then make and accompany other disciples into mission.

As part of the St Benedict’s game plan, parishioners are also invited to involve themselves in a Discipleship Group that is focused on learning content (catechesis) and it is when the fullness of Christian life is being lived in the ways above that worship, especially the Mass, then comes to life, as the source and summit of a living faith. The parish offers a variety of styles of worship, including contemporary, traditional and contemporary choir.

The clear strength of the ‘Game Plan’, this process of discipleship, is that it provides pathways or an itinerary for personal growth rather than standalone programs that can run the risk of creating what Rebuilt well identified as a ‘Catholic consumer culture’ in which people expect but do not contribute, seek to be served rather than serve as missionary disciples.

It reminds us that programs without a larger context of process within a parish may provide an experience or consolation of a ‘quick fix’ but do not produce lasting or authentic renewal, as Fr James notes in Divine Renovation,

Any course run in a parish will be only as good as the culture of that parish. Even a very successful tool for evangelisation like Alpha will have a very limited impact if the values of a parish are vastly different from the values within a particular program” (p.94).

This same dynamic could be applied to large initiatives in the universal Church such as World Youth Day which risk being standalone events without address of the necessary cultural conversion of our local parishes to which our pilgrims return (it can, in the words of Fr James, “leave us open to charges of false advertising”).

Conclusion

IMG_1992While the processes of evangelisation and discipleship above are indeed impressive and can be overwhelming to consider for the parishes we know and love, it was assuring to learn that the parish of St Benedict’s has not achieved this clarity of vision and process overnight. The parish at the heart of Divine Renovation has arrived at this point after at least six years (if not more in the ministry of the pastor) of considerable trial and error, experimentation and ongoing refinement and reflection.

In a plenary session Fr James described to us three distinct phases of renewal that missionary parishes will undertake: the start of the journey, the middle phase in which we do not necessarily know where we are going, and our intended goal or landing point. We have in Divine Renovation great encouragement to begin the journey of renewal as parishes. For those communities that take the steps to form a vision, create the right team and start moving forwards, there will need to be an ongoing effort to uphold momentum (an initial momentum created at St Benedict’s by Alpha and that then led to the formation of Connect Groups). Momentum needs to be sustained during the middle phase of the renewal process for what works will eventually stop working without a renewed intent to grow and adapt (we know this to be the experience of many a youth group that begins with potential, builds a critical mass but eventually fades if change, further development, or a leadership pipeline is not inaugurated).

In its ongoing journey, the parish of St Benedict’s is married not to a method but to a mission, not to programs but a process of discipleship that creates opportunity and support for growth. This model challenges all of our parishes not simply to gauge their health by the number of groups within them, or by standalone events or programs, but to form a ‘game plan’ for active and missionary discipleship, the spiritual fruit of its members, which such programs might support (we seek not people to build up the Church but a Church that builds up our people).

The emphasis on a discipleship process challenges our parishes to move away from a habit of disconnected activity, a ‘spaghetti approach’ to pastoral life and events that might appease anxieties of leadership and a community looking for evidence of life. We know this approach eventually leads to burnout with little progress in cultural transformation. We need vision and coherency, to act out of a commitment to a defined mission. As was shared at the Divine Renovation conference, less is more and an overled but undermanaged environment will be ultimately unsustainable, with much activity but little progress.

Alive to the urgent need of missionary disciples in our age, Fr James and the parish of St Benedict have not only named but responded to what we are painfully conscious of as Church – the often poor health of our parishes reflected in declining participation and morale, a lack of growth and a clinging to ineffective routines, ministries that bear no or little fruit, an absence of bold and passionate proclamation of the saving Gospel, few genuine forms of evangelical outreach, and the result and reality that many of our people have never come to know Jesus personally.

St Benedict’s have responded by describing and dedicated themselves to being a healthy parish (drawing upon the five systems of vitality outlined), by inviting participation and expecting growth among its members and non-members, engaging Alpha as a practical tool for this purpose with an emphasis on the saving kerygma, nurturing community and involvement in ministry and mission through an experience of small group accompaniment, and underpinning all of this with a culture of invitation.

It is testament to the vitality of this parish that it recognises at all times that health, growth and conversion are the product of the Spirit of Christ who is the source of all holiness and mission. St Benedict’s Parish is an evangelising community that has learned, and is learning, to cooperate in the mission that belongs to God, to be a vine, heralding from the branch, that bears much fruit.

 

proclaiming amoris laetitia

Amoris LaetitiaThe past months have seen numerous developments in the life of the universal Church and the national scene. Without doubt the most significant development has been the release of Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the joy of love in the family, Amoris Laetitia. The second is more parochial but, I hope, no less helpful towards our common mission, the Proclaim 2016 Conference to take place this September.

In certain ways Amoris Laetitia embodies the evangelical challenge for the Church in every age. It calls the Church to drink from the sources of its own faith, the Scriptures and holy tradition, as well as to attend to the concrete dimensions of contemporary life, of human suffering and graced overcoming which too can be a source of theological knowing for the Church.

This reception of God’s revelation amidst and not above the circumstances of real life is no simple art as Pope Francis recognises. In responding to the complexities of family life today, Pope Francis names two opposing dangers in Amoris Laetitia, “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (AL 2). That is to say, an obsession with novelty or escape into the cold comfort of law (or an articulate tradition that often says more than it means) are not genuine responses to Christ or humanity. We are being called to eschew any form of utopianism which can be a particular danger for those of us with religious sensibilities – it is the impatient dismissal of that which is incomplete and blunt intolerance of those circumstances and complexities that actually prevail. It is to succumb to the wilful piety and ignorance of the Pharisee who forecloses the possibility of conversion and therefore is unable to understand or extend mercy.

On the level of pastoral practice, the concern of this blog, Amoris Laetitia challenges the whole Catholic community “to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs” (AL 199). So what opportunities are laid bare by Pope Francis’ theology and how might this latest expression of the Church’s faith take root in the life of the local church, the culture of the parish and the family itself as the ‘way of the Church’ (AL).

The first step forwards is an understanding of the situations of marriage and family that are lived today, an understanding which is an inescapable requirement of the work of evangelisation. As Pope Francis has declared ‘reality is greater than ideas’. This challenges the parish to know and really encounter the families that form and surround them, not only in the pews but in the school communities and neighbourhoods for whom the parish is called to be the presence of Christ.

IMG_0917 palm sunday 2011 copyWith a dose of the same reality it is worth noting that it takes time and resources for this form of evangelical outreach and familiarity with our flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters. It has always struck me that while Pope Francis’ constant refrain to ‘go forth’ is both attractive and true to the spirit of the Gospel, it does in fact take organisation and resources to set out on mission. Any parish that has more than one community within it knows that it is difficult to be outreaching when, in the words of Sherry Weddell, you are ‘literally besieged at HQ’.

The good news is that families still come to our doors through the sacramental life of the Church, are there with us in worship, relate to our Catholic ethos or traditions through our school communities, and are encountered through our social support services, and works of charity and justice. To ‘go forth’ then does not only invite our outreach to others in the Gospel but calls for our own spiritual conversion as people who will in fact be encountered. In this vein Pope Francis can preach (and tweet), “Let us break open our sealed tombs to the Lord – each of us know what they are – so that he may enter and grant us life”. ‘Going out’ invites no less than a change of heart, the escape from our own closed doors, from a bounded way of loving and a selective form of care in our communities.

The joy of Amoris Laetitia is that it does not approach our families as a problem but as good news and as active agents of God’s evangelising mission. Hence the Pope’s document is not simply the preserve of moral theologians and commentators on conscience (AL 37) but can be understood through the lens of ecclesiology. The Apostolic Exhortation values the ecclesial mission proper to the family and the illumination and assistance of the family that is proper to the Church’s mission. The Church and the family are inseparable as Francis notes (AL 67; 87). The Church nourishes the family through word and sacrament, an economy of spiritual nourishment and outpouring of Christ’s mercy, and the family is, to borrow the language of its predecessor Familiaris Consortio, not only a “saved community” but a “saving community” in its love, schooling and embrace of others (FC 49), in its original and irreplaceable education of children (AL 84), and in its natural relationship to other families in the context of everyday life. One could go as far as to say that without the family there is no Church.

Among other practical challenges presented to us, Pope Francis calls for renewed accompaniment of couples preparing for marriage and living marriage. As a Church, “a family of families” (AL 87), this task does not fall only on a select few but is a common project that invites “a missionary conversion by everyone in the Church” (AL 201). Our clergy, lay men and women, dedicated singles, the young, and the elderly all have a role to play in nurturing a culture of self-giving love and commitment. Together as a family of faith we have the project of ‘domesticating’ the world by taking loving responsibility for one another, including our couples and families who embark on this path of life (AL 183).

untitledAmoris Laetitia exhorts us to encourage the young to aspire to marriage and family life all the while fostering realistic expectations that prepare them for mature relationships that inevitably experience change through time. It speaks of the need for married couples to be open to the prospect of new life, to educate children in virtue and to foster their natural inclination towards goodness (AL 264). It speaks of inclusion and affirms the Gospel as a word spoken to all people in every circumstance as a source of hope. Pope Francis also offers practical ideas to encourage husbands and wives in their journey of constant growth, and urges parishes and faith communities to be bearers of comfort and consolation for those who await mercy, who seek oil for their wounds (AL 309-310).

It has been widely observed that Chapter IV, with its extended reflection on St Paul’s hymn on love, is the heart and soul of Amoris Laetitia and forms a beautiful source of meditation and encouragement for couples and families as they live their vocation, not in a false utopia but in what a theologian has described as “the detailed texture of the foreground”.

Ultimately, Amoris Laetitia teaches us that by witnessing to love and fidelity, even amidst imperfections and struggle, the family brings hope to the world and inspires us to never stop seeking the fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us (AL 325).

Proclaim 2016

Picture193It has been a privilege to be involved in the organisation of the third turn of a national conference on parish evangelisation, Proclaim 2016 (www.proclaimconference.com.au). Registrations have opened online and parishes across Australia have now received promotional material sharing the good news of this much anticipated gathering!

With the Diocese of Broken Bay taking up the reins for this conference only in the last weeks of 2015 it has exciting to see the details come together with haste

Cardinal Wuerl will share his personal experience of and learnings from Pope Francis, while Dr Susan Timoney, also of the Archdiocese of Washington, will speak to the mission of parishes in our local neighbourhoods. Bishop Nicholas Hudson of Westminster will speak to the potential of parishes through the lens of Christ’s mercy while I am honoured to share a word on the prophetic capacity of the Church and parish, particularly in light of the faith with which Christ has already endowed it. Participants will also enjoy conference liturgies, panel discussions on evangelisation, social media initiatives, and a night of praise and worship open to youth and young adults.

proclaim_logo_2016_golddoveWorkshops are also offered across the three days of the conference and will canvass a range of topics that speak to the lived situation and evangelical mission of parishes today. For convenience I’ve listed the full range of workshops below. They encompass everything from the liturgical and sacramental life of the parish, personal discipleship and the discernment of gifts, social media and communicating the Gospel to youth and young adults, to the response of parishes to the sexual abuse crisis, the need of supervision and self-care in ministry, strategies for forming evangelisation teams, responding to Amoris Laetitia through parish based marriage preparation, engaging the multicultural face of the Church and incarnating Pope Francis’ vision of poverty in the local community of faith.

I hope to see you in September for this national gathering of the Church in mission and in the meantime wish you every blessing in your ministry and commitments, Daniel

  • My Story and the Great Story: Becoming an Everyday Evangeliser – Dr Susan Timoney
  • Developing Spiritual Gifts and Language for Evangelisation – Clara Geoghegan
  • Parishes of Mercy: Responding to the Sexual Abuse Crisis – Rev Dr David Ranson VG
  • Communicating the Gospel to a New Generation: Growing Youth Discipleship in the Parish – Patrick Keady
  • Self-Care and Supervision: Vital for the New Evangelisation – Marcel Koper
  • Connecting the Parish and School for Christ-Centred Mission – Fr John Pearce & Paige Bullen
  • Speaking the Faith and Forming Consciences for Parish Mission – Dr Daniel Fleming
  • Renewing Sacramental Preparation: Engaging Our Parents and Children in the Life of Faith – Marguerite Martin
  • Catholic Worship Book II: A New Resource for Parish Liturgy – Dr Paul Taylor & Sophy Morley
  • Parish Faith Formation for Personal Transformation – Cardinal Donald Wuerl
  • Forming Evangelisation Teams: Best Practice for Effective Mission – Bishop Nicholas Hudson
  • How We Do What We Do Matters: Practicing the ‘Art of Proper Celebration’ in Parish Liturgy – Professor Clare Johnson
  • The Joy of Love: Evangelising Parishes Through the Family and Couple – Francine & Byron Pirola
  • Who Do We Think We Are: Models of Parish that Help or Hinder Our Mission – Lorraine McCarthy
  • Fostering Vocations in the Heart of the Parish – Fr Morgan Batt
  • When Two Parishes Become One: Opportunities for Evangelisation when Parishes Merge – Fr Paul Monkerud
  • The RCIA as the Primary Means of Evangelisation for the Whole Parish – Rev Dr Elio Capra SDB
  • Let the Children Come: Evangelisation through Family-Friendly Liturgy – Michael Mangan & Anne Frawley-Mangan
  • Love & Mercy in the Loungeroom: Parish Based Marriage Preparation – Philipa & Luke Caulfield
  • Practical Evangelising Strategies: Successful Techniques from Vital Parishes – Dr Bob Dixon
  • Parishes of the Poor for the Poor: A Practical Response to Pope Francis’ Vision – Lana Turvey
  • A Multiethnic Church: Building Intercultural Mission in the Parish – Clyde Cosentino
  • Engaging People in Community Life and Baptismal Mission – Richard McMahon
  • ‘Who Do You Say I Am?’ Parishes Proclaiming Jesus Christ: Opportunities & Challenges – Director, National Office for Evangelisation
  • Lifting Your Game: Evangelising through Social Media and Parish Communications – Laura Bradley & Gelina Montierro

 

 

 

 

the RCIA, pilgrims and prospects

DBBMAPThe past few months have been a whirlwind as I’ve landed firmly within a new diocese. Much time has been invested in engaging with staff members, clergy and lay leaders, discerning and weighing a vision for mission that will be responsive as well as challenging to our context, and considering critical issues of governance, structure and resources.

The highlights of this time have included meeting the parish communities of the diocese who have offered tremendous hospitality and welcome, and the opportunity to speak with a number of ecclesial movements and other potential partner organisations that offer the kind of evangelical energy we want to see flourish in northern Sydney.

This weekend I’ll be delivering a keynote address at an RCIA conference held biennially and hosted by the Diocese of Broken Bay. It will be a great opportunity to discuss the ways in which we seek to accompany people in their encounter with Christ. It is a ministry of the Church for which I have great passion and respect for it is at the forefront of the Church’s outreach. I owe a great deal personally to my experience of the RCIA. Below are some thoughts that I will share and I hope they may spur your own thinking on the dynamics and helps of Christian initiation.

Evangelisation in a New Time: Pilgrims and Prospects

baptism-adultThere is nothing as joyous as the initiation or reception of adults into the life of Christ. I stand here as a beneficiary of that process when I was baptised and confirmed on a Wednesday night in November of 1999. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church on the eve of the new millennium at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background.

A small but powerful group had accompanied me through conversion and initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, and learning to trust. In sharing this portion of my own story and in the following reflections on RCIA in the context of the new evangelisation I hope to affirm your dedication to the RCIA as a vital sign and mirror of the Church in its deepest identity as a community of evangelising disciples.

A Developing Faith

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and the prophetic zeal of Pope Francis, it is today commonplace to speak of the Church and its need of development or reform, that is, change. From the laments and incitements of Evangelii Gaudium, to contemporary Catholic literature such as Rebuilt, Forming Intentional Disciples, and Divine Renovation there has been magisterial, critical and popular recognition that what is most needed at this stage of our history as Church is a re-appreciation of evangelisation, the making and maturing of disciples, as the essential mission of our Church.

A ‘new evangelisation’ is sought, ‘new’ not in message or substance as if we have somehow graduated from the one Gospel given in Jesus Christ, but an apostolic outreach that is fresh in energy, intent and method for we seek to evangelise in a context that is something other than a carbon copy of times past.

Certainly, there is continuity. Today adults, as ever, come forward to be initiated as an expression and consequence of their faith in Jesus Christ from a variety of personal and cultural backgrounds. Through their initiation, these pilgrims die to self and rise in Christ who is their new way of life and they enter into this new life socially, joining a community that professes Jesus to be the source of their life and salvation.

Baptême_Cathédrale_de_Troyes_290308However, the ways and practices of Christian initiation have varied throughout the history of the Church. We only have to recall the early second century when potential catechumens presented for baptism after two to three years of preparation, involving multiple exorcisms and even a dash of salt. The danger of persecution within an intolerant Roman Empire restricted exposure of catechumens to the sacred mysteries of faith while sponsors played the role of prudent guarantor for the trustworthiness of their initiates. We see the shape of Christian initiation evolve yet again with the penitential theology of the Church. Many a convert in the patristic age chose to remain a catechumen until the end of life in the hope that a quick baptism before death might erase all the more sin. Even the formula of baptism itself has undergone development and with it the catechesis that has accompanied preparation, with baptism first simply in the name of Jesus, then the more creedal, interrogative formula recorded in the Apostolic Tradition before the straightforward trinitarian formula we employ today, based upon Matthew 28:19. The catechumenate of adults and rites of initiation have developed with the life of the Church as it has confronted each stage of history.

What we learn from this rich history is that the potential and fruit of our catechumenate – restored at the direction of Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 64) and now just four and a half decades old in the form of the RCIA (decreed in 1972) – is intimately bound up with the life and vicissitudes of our Catholic community as a whole. As affirmed by the Rite itself, there is an intimate and indispensable relationship between the initiation process and the total life of the parish, what could be described as ‘the community of initiation.’[1]

Initiation in a New Time

Baptismal FontAs it stands today the Church in Australia sees some 69,000 newly baptised each year, with approximately 5,000 of these adults.[2] (As an aside, it has been noted that the number of adult baptisms in the U.S. rose by 12% between Easter 2013 and Easter 2014, portents perhaps of a genuine ‘Francis effect’ encouraging initiation.)

In receiving the forgiveness of sins, union with Christ and incorporation into his body, the seal and sanctification of the Spirit, and Christ’s Eucharistic body, these twenty-first century neophytes personify and encourage our hope to be that transformative, mediating community that Christ calls us to be, a Church that is essentially ‘a life passed on’.

A more sobering characteristic of our time, highlighted by contemporary literature and recent papal teaching, is that personal conversion and ceaseless evangelisation in the Church can no longer be assumed. Indeed, diminishing rates of participation in weekly Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church present a serious challenge to our ecclesial and formative paradigms.

For one, the premise of a ‘conveyer belt’ which took Catholics from the cradle to grave in faith, passing through the way of the Catholic family, parish and school, no longer seems true-to-life, if it ever was. As Sherry Weddell notes, there is thin evidence to support the belief that Catholic identity simply migrates from infancy into adulthood, resulting in the slow but steady spiritual growth of Catholic adults over a lifetime.[3] There is little reason to suppose that Catholic converts will also be carried along by some seamless cultural momentum within the Church into lifelong discipleship.

Sadly, we know the stories of the newly initiated who have journeyed with us over months only to disappear from the active life of the worshipping community, some even before the Easter season has drawn to a close. The trust, encounter, and discipleship in Christ fostered by small groups such as the RCIA yearns to be sustained by the larger ecclesial body into which the newly initiated are incorporated.

In other words, we cannot consider the RCIA and its pilgrims apart from the prospects for their continued journey with Christ in the body of all the faithful. If we are inviting people to the Gospel we must offer them a community of life in which spiritual seeds can prosper.

Much of our magisterial teaching assumes the existence of this living, active and spiritually dynamic community of faith in our parishes, not out of naiveté or ignorance of what is a more mixed reality in our parishes, but so as to underline all the more the non-negotiable nature of a culture of discipleship as the building block of all other elements of parish life, including liturgy.

FootprintsVatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium declares that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[4] The Catechism of the Catholic Church underlines “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[5] For its part, the RCIA confirms the necessity of a pre-catechumenate prior to theological instruction and liturgical preparation, a “time of evangelisation and initial conversion” which is to unfold in the presence of parish families and other groups of Christians through whom those with faithful intent can see “evidence of the spirit of Christians that they are striving to understand and experience”, all this prior to the rite of acceptance into the order of catechumens.[6] Again, the RCIA and its pilgrims cannot be considered apart from the spiritual health of the whole body into which the newly initiated are grafted. The budding of the branches depends upon the vitality of the vine.

When we take the current temperature of ‘the vine’, the whole body of the faithful, the sober reality is that 60% of those who attend Mass reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[7] It is evident that many a parish culture does not nourish personal faith and a mindset that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ neglects our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually bear fruit.

The spiritual barrenness reported in our pews flows over to impact upon the ability and even the desire of Catholics to reach others for Christ with obvious consequences for the RCIA. Hence, some 72% of Australian Mass attenders reported that they would not or did not know if they would invite someone to their parish.[8] Without spiritual growth in their own lives, individuals are not able to be effective witnesses or apostles for Christ in the wider community.

All in all Fr James Mallon underlines the importance of addressing parish culture in its totality if  discipleship is to be lifelong, noting smaller groups and initiatives

. . . will be only as good as the culture of that parish. Even a very successful tool for evangelisation . . . will have a very limited impact if the values of a parish are vastly different from the values within a particular program . . . Running evangelistic, outreach or renewal programs without addressing the necessary cultural conversion of our parishes will only leave us open to charges of false advertising.[9]

The fruit of RCIA depends in no small part on a parish culture where the kerygma, the Great Story of Jesus, is clearly preached through substantial homilies, where the kerygma is made known through adult faith formation experiences that are a norm of community life rather than an exception, and through the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by entering into that living story of Jesus, providing witness to his Spirit alive and at work in human lives.

Indeed, in the light of the interdependency of RCIA with the community at large, I would suggest that there is an argument that catechumens and candidates, while keeping their unique identity as a group, could be a part of a spiritual and faith formation process that is open to anyone.[10] While recognising the stages of development that mark the particular experience of catechumens, all are called to be disciples, mathētēs in Greek, meaning those who learn. All are called to be students before the feet of Jesus Master and Teacher and we cannot in this new era assume that the great numbers of already baptised have indeed heard that initial proclamation of the Gospel which Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium reminds us “we must hear again and again in different ways”.[11] My observation from the pews is that people are grasping only fragments of the Gospel and from the outside. Furthermore, I know many veterans of faith, dedicated and regular attendees, who envy the deep learning and spiritual conversation that the RCIA makes possible but to which they ordinarily do not have access themselves.

Foundational formation involving both newcomers and more established Catholics would recollect for the community that new membership is as much a part of regular parish life as Sunday Mass. Mutual experiences of formation would allow candidates to be integrated into community life not simply during the rites of initiation but in its very life, understood as a common school of holiness and friendship with Jesus Christ. If prayer and discipleship are learned, as our tradition maintains, then all have much to gain through and with one another as common pilgrims on the Gospel way.

Spiritual Accompaniment

startplanning1Having underlined this morning the inseparability of converts and the spiritual vitality of the communities they enter, a further opportunity makes itself present in our capacity to tell the stories of conversion that emerge from our tradition, narratives of holiness and transformation that can assist today’s catechumens to clarify their own life as a spiritual way.

Our firsthand experience of RCIA tells us that so much depends not simply on theological instruction or liturgical preparation but on the communication and exchange of stories, the sharing of personal itineraries of call and conversion, rich testimonies of the ways in which human lives have become intertwined with God’s.

In such spiritual conversation we enumerate together the shape of holiness, we generate a living tradition of what it means to be a holy person, we affirm the very possibility of access to and relationship with God and the capacity of human beings to respond and flourish in cooperation with his gracious and divine life.

I propose that the RCIA can provide for catechumens in our time invaluable guidance on the basic tenets of our faith, the rhyme and reason of our liturgical rites but also, crucially, testify to the ways in which lasting conversion can actually come about under the influence of grace. Those entering a life of faith, not to mention those already in the pews, are in need of a clear sign or witness that the life of faith is indeed possible, worthwhile and of ultimate significance and value.

In reflecting on my own experience of conversion and that of others who have come into the Church as adults, I am mindful that the transition into Christian life is anything but abstract, whimsical or sugar-coated. It is oftentimes a formidable journey, not without loss, and quite literally world-changing in its consequence. Friends and relationships change as do priorities, lifestyles and life choices and directions.

Our rich spiritual tradition helpfully offers a multitude of concrete lives and trajectories that can affirm and nourish this transition from an old way of life to a new life in Christ. The great stories and holy witnesses of our faith provide, in their own way, “an assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1).

What are the most compelling narratives of holiness that the RCIA can bring forward to uphold and foster trust in the momentous ‘crossing over’ from the old self to the new, for twenty-first century pilgrims? What are those stories that we can tell to show that Christian faith indeed makes a human life coherent?

To offer classic examples, the itineraries of St Paul, St Augustine, and a St Francis delineate by different routes the way in which total Christian conversion is possible and how one can engage the world as a new creation in Christ. These are stories of our tradition worth telling. Their biographies and standing as models of holiness provide neophytes with a tangible vision of the way in which God promotes our flourishing in the particular circumstances of our life. It is not a stretch to assert that some of the spiritual stagnation in our pews may be attributable to the plain fact that many Catholics have no vision at all as to how the life of holiness could be pursued or ultimately take expression.

Take the story of St Francis of Assisi as an outstanding paradigm of our tradition. We recall here a young man of excess and indulgence, one who lives a dissolute life bankrolled by the wealth of the family business. Knowing no limits and characterised by exorbitant passions and intemperance, we learn that God’s work of grace in Francis does not cut out or obliterate this trait of excessiveness, does not excise his tendency to wild abandon but rather transforms it from within. Francis remains a man of excess but now becomes excessive in his poverty, radical in his self-sacrifice, zealous in his self-abandonment and self-donation to others.

The ascetic friar of Assisi brings forward for us the journey of holiness as inclusive and transfigurative rather than severe or caustic as the spiritual writer John O’Donohue adeptly explains:

The Christian life has always been a struggle towards perfection. Yet the recommended models of change have been very damaging, either metamorphosis, where the old self was expected to graft onto a supernatural level and become abruptly sanctified, or moral surgery, whereby the undesired dimensions of one’s life were cut out. Such externalist violence is always resisted by the psyche’s organic and inclusive spiritual instinct. Transfiguration is in harmony with the deepest rhythm of the soul because nothing is denied, excluded or forced. Attention is focused reverently on the whole complex of one’s presence. In light of this reverence to one’s self the places of entanglement, limitation, blindness and damage gradually reveal themselves in ways that suggest and invite changes in the configuration of one’s heart.[12]

candleWe learn that authentic growth in holiness is not about ‘metamorphosis’, the idea that we can simply shed the past, our very personality and history, and become someone entirely new. This is illusory. Nor is growth in holiness about moral surgery in which we simply excise or cut off whatever is found to be undesirable within us. As witnessed in St Francis’ life, the image of transfiguration is more apt, a gradual process in which we enter into and are attentive to every aspect of who we are, even those inevitable dimensions of darkness within ourselves, ‘lifting them up to the Lord’ whose Holy Spirit brings about transformation within, and not despite, the conditions of our life and character.

By such great narratives I believe neophytes as much as the already baptised can find encouragement to acknowledge the all-too-human reality which is inescapably ours – light and shadow, wheat and tare – and open this mixed reality to God’s love and grace which heals, redirects and transforms our very weakness into God’s strength (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

I suggest that the dynamics of Christian conversion are well carried by the stories of those who have gone before us in faith, in the restless interiority of a St Augustine, the passionate poverty of a St Francis, the change of heart worked within the religiosity of a St Paul. These models need not stereotype holiness but give shape and substance to the possibilities that are there for all of us. These holy lives open us to more than what we may have yet imagined for ourselves, and so hold powerful relevance to our spiritual accompaniment of the enquirer, catechumen and the newly baptised by way of the RCIA.

Conclusion

In the midst of a changing ecclesial landscape and by its privileged access and accompaniment of unique and varied lives touched by Christ, the RCIA remains a gift and mirror to the Church, expressing its identity and vocation to be evermore an evangelising community of faith. Noting the particular challenges of Christian outreach at this time of history, Pope Francis remarks,

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.[13]

In the work of the RCIA may we continue to offer that which is beautiful, most grand, appealing and most necessary, the Good News of the Gospel given to us in Jesus Christ, and the spiritual accompaniment of those who have walked the way of faith before us.

References:

[1] Rite of Christian Initiation 9.

[2] Vatican Secretariat of State, Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2012.

[3] Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 67-70.

[4] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1079.

[6] Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, no. 36-37, 39.

[7] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation (Twenty-Third Publications: New London, CT, 2014), 94.

[10] This approach is also recommended by Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation, 230.

[11] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.

[12] John O’Donohue, ‘The Priestliness of the Human Heart’, The Way 45.

[13] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 35.

starting afresh in the new evangelisation

Meeting the pastoral support staff of the Diocese of Broken Bay

Meeting the pastoral support staff of the Diocese of Broken Bay earlier this week.

It has been a joy to take up my appointment as Director of Evangelisation for the Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay, working under the leadership of Bishop Peter A. Comensoli and together with the clergy, religious and laity of this region of NSW, Australia.

Encompassing some 3,000 square kilometres, the Diocese of Broken Bay stretches from the northwest of Sydney, in the suburbs of Arcadia and Pennant Hills, through the North Shore, east to Manly Freshwater, North Harbour and Pittwater, and as north as Toukley and Warnervale, taking in some forty plus communities gathered in twenty-six parishes.

Some 223,000 Catholics live in the diocese, including 85,000 Catholic families while almost one third of Catholics in the diocese are aged 19 years or under. There are some 17,000 students in its systemic schools with a high percentage of students Catholic. With all this in view, there are great possibilities to build upon the achievements of the past and carry forward the work of evangelisation in this new environment.

In speaking at a farewell in the Diocese of Parramatta, I chose to quote Thomas Merton having read him for some years and recently returned from a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane where he lived, wrote and is buried. Merton reflected on the unique character of Christian mission which I think is relevant to the project of evangelisation. He averred,

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

While at first glance this may suggest a casual disinterest in pastoral outcomes, Merton in fact turns our attention towards the very centre of our mission as Catholic leaders, the ultimate end, and that is the heralding of a culture of deep personal faith and evangelisation born of relationships of faith and evangelical zeal.

The privilege of Christian leadership is affirming that all the baptised are agents of God’s evangelising mission because we are first personal subjects of that mission, because He has first sought us out, reached out to us with love and so we are called to reach out to others in His name with the intimacy and familial love that Pope Francis has so well embodied in his Petrine ministry.

Much of the contemporary literature on evangelisation suggests that since the Second Vatican Council we have taken a largely ‘programmatic’ or institutional approach to evangelisation without necessarily addressing personal faith as well as we ought, or taking into full account the reality that the ‘conveyer belt’ that was assumed to take people from childhood faith into adult discipleship has broken down, if it was ever as reliable as it was once thought to be. As mentioned in a previous blog, we have been tempted to ‘evangelise’ by providing external stimulus for people’s contact with our faith and parish communities (e.g. giving people ministries to keep them engaged) rather than addressing the interior conversion in Christ that is the source of all other commitment and ongoing practice.

Rebuilt and Other Observations

My time in the U.S. provided insights into how many dioceses, parishes and groups are seeking to reclaim this focus on personal faith and discipleship in challenging contexts which are not dissimilar to our Australian experience.

A scene from the Church of the Nativity, Maryland, last month.

A scene from the Church of the Nativity, Maryland, last month.

I can confirm that the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, is certainly as interesting as the book Rebuilt would suggest but not a template that could easily be transferred elsewhere. The church itself is a simple, unadorned one storey building with a large car park (perhaps their first achievement!). On the weekend I visited, a small marquee was planted out the front of the building with staff and volunteers sharing information about plans for a large new worship space, including renderings of a new church interior and exterior.

As for the liturgy, the music was contemporary as expected, with the nave of the church darkened to generate atmosphere and the technology savvy. Fr Michael White shared in his homily that the new exterior of the church would be plain, not much different from the glassed, contemporary style of modern airports or public buildings. That is, it will not be an unusual or alienating environment for first time visitor, ‘Timonium Tim’. Passing through a spacious foyer into the newly constructed sanctuary, Timonium Tim will discover he is in an intimate, semi-circular worship space. Tim will discover that he is, in fact, in church.

Such plans for the future manifest the fact that the Church of the Nativity is primarily dedicated to the newcomer while the parish’s commendable focus on small groups is the strategy that is engaged for a consequent deepening of faith in line with Fr Michael’s ‘message’ (i.e. homily) for that particular weekend.

There are many positives to be taken from the parish and the book Rebuilt. While it is too particular a community to serve as a blueprint – which it was never intended to be – it affirms the need of parish vision, creative leadership and commitment over the long term to think and rethink of Church in terms other than mere survival. It is the commitment to evangelise in the wider community that opens up possibilities within the life of the Church. Each community will have to wrestle with its own approach to evangelisation appropriate to context but the vision of growth, welcome and outreach found at Nativity is something that could be embraced by all.

The Archdiocese of Boston

Staff of the Pastoral Planning Office in the Archdiocese of Boston

Staff of the Pastoral Planning Office in the Archdiocese of Boston

For those planning on a diocesan or parish ministry level, you could do no better than sit at the feet of the Archdiocese of Boston which has transformed its life over recent years. The initial focus of the planning commission formed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley was the new evangelisation, understood as “the particular work of reaching out to Catholics who are not currently active in the Church”.

It was recognised that structural change alone would not sustain the life of the archdiocese, let alone grow it. The eventual pastoral plan, Disciples in Mission was decreed by Cardinal Sean after more than one year of development and consultation and is available here. At only eleven pages, it is a thorough and comprehensive guide for an archdiocese with momentum.

Part One of the plan is focused on the organisation of the archdiocese’s 289 parishes, fortifying their resources so they can more effectively evangelise. 289 parishes are to be organised into 135 “collaboratives” over the coming years. In this situation, each parish retains its name, assets, financial responsibilities and canonical independence (so these are not ‘amalgamations’ or extinctive unions), however, a single priest is assigned as parish priest of Parish X, as parish priest of Parish Y, and as parish priest of Parish Z with collaboration of the ministries and staff of the parishes a key priority for this priest. It’s worth noting that even after the completion of Part One of this plan, Boston will still be not as lean as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles which has five times the number of Catholics but the equivalent number of parishes (about 260 in total).

No parishes will be closed as a result of Disciples in Mission and so communities remain available to people as they are now. This enables members of the diocese to focus on what the pastoral plan and evangelisation means and invites for their personal living of the faith, not the structural question which so often dominates contemporary church agendas.

The collaboratives are to be created slowly across the archdiocese, over a period of four years. Boston is currently in Phase 2 of creating collaboratives right across the archdiocese with two more phases to go. Parishes involved are typically given a year’s notice of their collaboration, an announcement which is made following consultation with priests and people, nomination of suitable collaborations that are given to the Cardinal who makes the final decision. Remote preparation, through the reading and reflection of communities of such texts as Rebuilt, Forming Intentional Disciples, and Divine Renovation, has been key in introducing communities to common language, ideas and insights throughout the year prior to the formation of the collaboratives.

Priests are allocated to collaboratives based on their discerned ability to lead such a cluster of parishes and are also expected to form one pastoral team for the communities, a team which is expected to undertake diocesan training in collaboration and evangelisation.

Part Two focuses on strengthening the embrace of this new evangelisation in parishes, by “reenergising pastoral leadership” in parishes, the archdiocese, youth ministry and adult formation. This runs concurrently with the activity of Part One. To achieve a depth of missionary zeal and commitment in the collaboratives, training is made available by three bodies which provide expertise in distinct areas – the Episcopal Vicar for the New Evangelisation who leads the area of evangelisation, the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) that provides training in leadership and management skills, and the Pastoral Planning Office which, under Fr Paul Soper, provides unity in the midst of change and coordinates ongoing practical support to help make the collaboratives function and grow.

The archdiocese envisages that the pastoral plans of parishes unfold over a nine year period – one year to write a parish plan centred on the collaboration of disciples, with three years to implement it, a year of prayer and discernment, a further year to write a new or revised plan centred on disciple-making, and another three years to implement this second pastoral plan. This is long term parish planning to accompany the long range approach of the archdiocese.

The parish training provided by the Pastoral Planning Office is being implemented in six stages starting with archdiocesan staff, clergy, then parish pastoral councils, going on to focus on the training of parishes in the art of writing parish plans.

Dedicated to discipleship in the Archdiocese of New York. Dianne Davis and Daniel Fraschella.

Dedicated to discipleship in the Archdiocese of New York. Dianne Davis and Daniel Fraschella.

Gateway moments of conversion (e.g. Masses, baptisms, seasonal peaks, etc.) are discussed in the training sessions, prayer is discussed at length (only praying disciples make disciples) and all parish activities are understood not as programs but processes that develop discipleship over time. It was noted that if a parish gets hung up on just one approach (e.g. small groups), it is likely to lose all sorts of people who will not be attracted to those ways of community or evangelisation. There must be a variety of responses to people in a variety of situations of faith.

Apart from the trainers in parish evangelisation, the archdiocese engages a “consultant model” in its parish support, with each collaborative having a key contact in archdiocesan finance and accounting, human resources, and other services of the archdiocese. It is a strength of the process that all staff, including finance staff, are encouraged to be mission-oriented and speak the same language as staff dedicated to evangelisation in a more formal capacity. This “all in” approach is key to the priests, pastoral councils and parish teams feeling supported in the change agenda of the archdiocese. The CLI also provides mentors for priests in managing change, often consisting of lay persons of expertise.

New friends in the U.S. also include Dave Nodar of Baltimore, the founder of ChristLife, and Dianne Davis, a regional coordinator of this Alpha-type process in New York, both of whom point to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which notes, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church; it must be preceded by evangelization, faith and conversion” (#1072). Evangelisation must lead us into the future as the foundation on which all else depends.

Conclusion

To learn from others in the field of pastoral planning and evangelisation is a delight. Back here at home, it is an enormously exciting time for the Church also with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP the ninth archbishop of Sydney, Bishop Peter Comensoli the third bishop of Broken Bay, and the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta anticipated in coming months.

Together there are great things that the Church can do in partnership with and for Greater Sydney. I believe significant renewal is taking place in metropolitan Sydney with a focus not merely on institutions and structures but on the life and mission of local communities of faith – parishes, youth, and movements – that will form the basis of mission in the twenty-first century.

forming the adult Church

Candle 4Next week I begin teaching a ten week course, an introduction to Catholic ministry, which forms part of a year-long course offered by the Institute for Mission, an adult education centre in the Diocese of Parramatta. Remarkably, the course has seen over 400 participants undertake studies in spirituality, Scripture, theology and ministry since its inception and includes spiritual direction, companioning groups as well as plenary days.

My particular component of the course attempts to situate ministry within the broader context of baptismal mission and the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, explores the ministry of Jesus as given witness in the New Testament, overviews the development of ministry from the Constantinian area until the present day, surveys the theologies of the ordained priesthood, the diaconate and lay ministry, relates ministry to Eucharist, before concluding with issues in pastoral practice and spiritual discernment.

Over the years I have tried to ground the course as much as possible in the touchstones of the ressourcement movement, and so the participants are exposed to the writings of the Church Fathers, the Scriptural testimony of early Christian life, and are invited to delve into the meaning of the Eucharistic prayers, including a nod to Eastern anaphora recognised by the Catholic Church (the most obscure of which is that of Addai and Mari, an Assyrian prayer distinguished for the absence of an institution narrative. See here for extended analysis of its use and context).

The growth in opportunities for such theological formation of lay men and women since the Second Vatican Council has been tremendous, meeting as these opportunities do the greater baptismal consciousness that flowed from the Council’s reception, and extending the possibility of theological learning and reflection beyond the seminary and religious houses of formation.

Foundational documents in the area of adult faith education include conciliar documents such as Lumen Gentium (1962), Apostolicam Actuositatem (1965), Gravissimum Educationis (1965), and post-conciliar monuments including Catechesi Tradendae (1979), the General Catechetical Directory (1997), and the pastoral plan for adult formation authored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us (1999; available here). This last document offers as its model the Emmaus story as a paradigm of encounter and accompaniment on the road to faith in Jesus, in a way which aligns well with the pedagogy outlined by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.

5382043It is worthwhile noting that the greater opportunities for theological formation of the laity in the contemporary Church reflects, in part, a shift in ecclesiastical culture over the last half century, away from a climate in which ‘religiosity’ was often identified with obeying the will of a superior as opposed to religious practice being the way to obtain our happiness and fulfilment. As the Canadian theologian John Lamont points out of that authoritarian atmosphere, one which extended well in the 1950s, ‘If faith is a matter of obeying orders, then asking questions about Catholic belief is insubordinate’.[1]

This climate also affected theological learning in general, producing an anti-intellectualism because asking questions about the faith was seen as smacking of disobedience rather than looking for new knowledge and a way of approaching God. The second opposite effect was that among the people who did ask questions, which were first the priest-scholars before the laity, there was a certain attitude of rebelliousness (e.g. Hans Kung, Herbert McCabe OP) which has been unhelpful at times to genuine theological development and for freedom of inquiry in other corners of the Church.

Today the possibilities for the faith education of lay men and women are much wider than available to previous generations and a commitment to critical research, historical studies and an awareness of how culture and a globalised context can illumine the mysteries of faith has provided Catholics ordained and lay with a richer theological horizon against which they can make sense of faith, if we are disposed to making use of the resources available to us.

In today’s Church, our Catholic universities continue to serve as the primary venue for formal theological education of lay men and women. However, it is also the case that many laity do not enrol in such accredited courses and degrees for at least two reasons. One is the expense of such courses which can be prohibitive, especially for those without recourse to student loan schemes; the other is that the spectre of rigorous assessments can also discourage participation at this tertiary level, especially for adults who have not studied for some time, even decades, and yet still seek some form of theological input and learning.

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day held in our Diocese

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day (c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

Hence, diocesan centres of adult formation, and the occasional talks, retreats, lecture series and programs facilitated by them (Catholic Alpha, Life in the Spirit seminars, the Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted workshops come to mind) as well as opportunities provided by religious congregations, remain critical to the education and formation of Catholics for mission. Online courses and other new media also offer sources of spiritual nourishment and theological reflection for those stretched for time in a work-a-day world.

Sadly, even in these less formal and more accessible settings for adult faith education there has been a conspicuous decline in the number of people taking up such opportunities. The low participation numbers in many diocesan adult formation initiatives brings into question the ability of the Church (at least the Australian Church) to communicate and deepen its faith and prepare its people for discipleship and outreach now and into the future.

As noted in previous blogs, while homilies, parish bulletins and the liturgy itself are the primary forms of formation experienced in the parish, these are rarely sufficient in themselves for working out that relationship between the faith we have received and the contemporary culture in which we are called to live it. As Thomas Merton remarks, as Christians we do not choose between Christ and the world as if they were utterly opposed. We choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[2] However, this ‘catholic’ choice requires formation and discernment lest we choose one to the neglect of the other – either a self-enclosed identity incapable of speaking to the world in the light of the Gospel, or a generalised humanism without Christian substance.

When Christian faith is not deepened through reflection on faith, it becomes difficult to live out that life commitment in both an integral and world-engaging manner. It is true, as Pope Francis has pointed out, that we do not need theological degrees to be Christian but it also the case that ignorance of our faith is not a virtue. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century, of those who do not bother to pursue an understanding of the riches of their own calling as Christians, ‘They demand bare faith alone – as if they wanted to harvest grapes right away without putting any work into the vine’ (Chapter IX, Stromata).

In a more contemporary key, the English theologian, Nicholas Lash, describes well the stagnancy in our midst in his 2002 Prideaux Lectures at the University of Exeter,

I never cease to be astonished by the number of devout and highly educated Christians, experts on their own ‘turf’ as teachers, doctors, engineers, accountants, or whatever; regular readers of the broadsheet press . . .  occasional visitors to the theatre who usually read at least one of the novels on the Booker short-list; and who nevertheless, from one year to the next, never take up a serious work of Christian theology and probably suppose The Tablet to be something that you get from Boots the chemist (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, 4-5).

SB048On his part, Lash attributes the decline in adult formation to the ‘systematic failure of the Christian churches to understand themselves as schools of Christian wisdom: as richly endowed projects of lifelong education’ (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence, 5).

There is much truth to this. As we have noted, our parishes do not largely understand themselves in this way, as ‘schools’, and therefore depend too heavily on the ability of our people to make sense of their faith and give an account of their hope unaided, without the support of a community of kindred learners who sit at the feet of the kerygma and tease out together the implications for life in this world.

As Richard Lennan of Boston College has written, ‘A secure faith . . . does not merely tolerate questions and thought, but affirms their capacity to act as vehicles for an ever-deeper engagement with the God revealed in history’.[3] Without doubt, we need to grow the opportunities for adult faith education but we must first grow the appetite and desire of our people for such formation, so that they can fully realise their own vocation and make use of the gifts and capacities called forth in them.

To conclude, the tradition of the Church upholds that the ‘catechesis of adults must be regarded as a preferential option’, and that this ‘can bear fruit only within the overall pastoral plan of the local Church communities’. [4]  To form our adults to be constructive participants in the life and mission of these communities, we need to place adult faith education once again at the heart of our intent and pastoral practice. Without such a focus, lay Catholics will lack the confidence to bear witness to the Gospel in a complex world and so the mission of the Church will be impaired on account of the undeveloped faith of the majority.


References:

[1] John Lamont, ‘Why the Second Vatican Council was a Good Thing and is More Important than Ever’, New Oxford Review (July/August 2005), 35. You can read the text on this blog.

[2] Cunningham, Lawrence, ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 387.

[3] Richard Lennan, ‘”Looking into the Sun”: Faith, Culture, and the Task of Theology in the Contemporary Church’, Australasian Catholic Record 84/4 (2007): 467.

[4] COINCAT, Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community: Some Principles and Guidelines, 29; available here. Accessed 30 September, 2014.

 

rebuilding our parishes for growth

logo2014Some 550 delegates from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea gathered at the Proclaim Conference 2014 this past week in Sydney to listen to leaders in parish ministry and evangelisation.

These practitioners included the authors of Rebuilt, Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, representatives of other Christian denominations, and Catholic lay men and women committed to transforming their local communities.

It was a whirlwind of three days, with almost forty workshops made available and addressing RCIA, faith support for families, the quality of parish leadership, ordained and lay, issues of disability and inclusion in our parishes, liturgical practice, and the use of new media in parishes, among others.

The best aspect of the conference for me was to connect with old and new friends, to experience the solidarity of so many others seeking to live the same mission, and to hear and weigh up the many complex issues that are involving in living what is, at least in principle, if not in practice, a simple and holy mission: to allow the life of the Gospel, the life of Jesus, to radiate within and flow out of the heart of our parish communities into the world that hungers and awaits a Word of life and hope.

I was also privileged to present a workshop at the conference which I share below in the hope it might trigger your own reflections on how you might best lead your parish community into a better future (for more regular readers of this blog, it contains many of the views expressed previously but not yet shared with a wider audience). A PDF of this presentation as well as a resource I handed out – the ideal parish pastoral plan (at least as I imagine it!) – is also available at the end of this blog if it is of help and interest to you.

The Pastoral Reality

Proclaim 3It is fair to say that the parish remains the primary experience of Church for many Catholics. There is much to celebrate – the commitment of our leaders, ordained and lay, various forms of pastoral activity and outreach, the living faith that makes these communities a true spiritual home.

However, we are also conscious of the many challenges that face our parishes. Among these is the decline in the number of those attending these communities on a weekly basis. Indeed, researchers have described the parish as having reached a ‘critical moment’ in the life of the Australian Church.[1]

We know that of our 5.4 million Catholics in Australia only 662,000 or 12.2 per cent join us for Eucharist on any given weekend.[2] Almost a third of these Mass attenders (some 220,000) are aged between 60 and 74 while of all Catholics aged between 20-34 in Australia, only 5-6% attend.[3] So we are witnessing an ageing congregation with fewer among younger generations to replace them as we move into the future.

Migrants, of course, account for over 40% of our Mass attenders.[4] We are indebted to and sustained by the participation of these diverse ethnic communities. However, we also know that second generation Australians, that is, the children of Catholic migrants, are far less likely to practice than their parents.

Furthermore, some 13,000 Catholics stop attending Mass each year, and across all age groups more than 20,000 Australians every year are ceasing to identify themselves as Catholic (a dis-identification of some 100,000 Catholics over the last five years).[5]

SB048As Dr Bob Dixon, among others, has recognised, the prospect that this situation raises in our lifetime is that of ongoing Catholic institutions, including schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, nursing homes and aged care facilities but fewer parishes where the worship of God enjoins a community of believers.[6] The related concern is that the Church in Australia will be reduced to a form of non-government organisation, a provider of services – including healthcare and education – but whose religious dimension is associated more strongly with their historical origins rather than their existing or ongoing spirit.

It becomes clear that we need our Catholic parishes to grow because they are integral and indispensable to our spiritual identity as a Church. Together with the family, the local parish remains the primary venue where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world, impelled by the Word and Eucharist. In all these ways, the future of the Australian Church relies on the vitality of the local Catholic parish.

The Call to Grow

It is challenging, then, to concede that many of our parishes have few or no plans to grow, have no explicit vision for making disciples, and can assume people are growing and disciples are being made despite evidence to the contrary.

baby_plant.28104733Indeed, it could be said that we do not often talk about ‘Church growth’ or ‘growing the Church’, apart from the occasional appeal for priestly vocations or in the context of planned giving campaigns. Some would regard talk of ‘Church growth’ as rather bureaucratic or managerial in tone, a language more at home in the Business Review Weekly than the Gospel of Jesus.

And yet . . . God calls our Church and our parishes to grow. From the commission given to us by Jesus himself, ‘Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:19-20) to Vatican II which exhorts the Church in Christ, to ‘pray and labour that the entire world may become the People of God’, the call to grow is an essential element of our identity and calling as a Catholic Church and as Catholic parishes.[7]

We have been given a mission of grace (baptising into the life of Christ) and a teaching mission (as 2 Peter 3:12 affirms, to assist our people ‘grow in the knowledge of the Lord’). In other words, we are being asked to go deep and wide.

While this may seem obvious, I propose that many parishes have not made growth in faith and the gaining of new members the explicit goal of their life and ministries, and dangerously only assumed them to be so. Without this clarity of purpose and a deliberate intent to expand, parishes can be resigned to a ‘decent minimum of religious conformity’ awash with verbal formula, exterior practices and too many undigested experiences of Mass and the Church among their members.[8] However, a ‘no growth’ mentality or complacency has its consequences.

When asked, 60% of Australian Mass attenders reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[9] The very real danger is that when people don’t grow, they begin to question their commitment and some are even tempted to leave. Meanwhile, 72% of Australian Mass attenders reported that they would not or did not know if they would invite someone to their parish.[10] It tells us that not everything we do as parishes makes disciples and, furthermore, when people are not growing they are not able to be witnesses for Christ in the wider community.

So, as a first step towards renewing parish culture we need to reclaim the basic commission of the Gospel to create better disciples and more disciples, both at the same time, ‘adding to our number’ as the Acts of the Apostles would express it (Acts 2:47) and becoming ‘mature in Christ’ (Col. 1:28). If spiritual and numerical growth, growing in and as Church, does not shape the way we do what we do, our communities can become caught in directionless routine with much movement but very little progress. Moreover, without the goal and the expectancy of growth, our parish workers can be caught dangerously between dedication and despair.

candlesWithout the desire to grow and actual plans to bring it about, we end up drawing on the same, small pool of laypersons for parish ministry and service, we struggle with succession in ministries leading to burn out and fatigue of our existing members, we become trapped in a self-affirming culture that neglects our God-given purpose to evangelise, and even risk becoming communities that are content or resigned to grow old rather than move forwards.

Hence, growth matters. The point made by the ressourcement theologian Henri de Lubac of the life of the Church in general applies to the life of the parish and its members in particular – interiorisation (the process by which the Gospel penetrates ever more deeply in the Spirit) goes hand in hand with universalisation and evangelisation (an awareness, commitment and outreach to others in that same Spirit).[11] The deepening of our personal life in Christ leads to an expanding capacity to serve others. We are called to grow in both person and community.

Obstacles to Parish Growth

It is a great tradition of our life and liturgy that in seeking to grow we must first name those obstacles that prevent us from growing in discipleship and that limit our outreach to those beyond the pews. There are a number of contradictions that could be named.

Firstly, while our parishes are called to be ‘schools of prayer’ we often assume our people know how to pray when Romans 8:26 reminds us that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’.[12] The Gospel reminds us that prayer is taught and learned, just as Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray to the Father, and yet there can be few opportunities to learn the practices and traditions of prayer in everyday life for the people in our pews. There are few prayers for miscarriage, neonatal loss, parent-teen relationships, chronic sickness, life aspirations and personal crises. Parishes can support their people to express their faith and experience in words by teaching and guiding prayer, both personal and communal, support that is not always extended.

We can also assume our parishes are welcoming. However, we can measure this by the relationships between existing members of our communities rather than the experience of the newcomer. When a sense of welcome and belonging to parish is thin, people can fail to graduate from being ‘mere attenders’ to becoming active participants in the mission of God which this community seeks to serve in the world.

SB012Above all, we can assume that those coming for the sacraments are already, ipso facto, disciples. However, as Sherry Weddell estimates, as little as 5% of our Mass attenders could be described as ‘intentional disciples’, as having made the conscious and personal decision to live as a disciple of Christ as their saviour and Lord.[13] Not all of our Mass attenders have allowed the Gospel to become the overriding, internal authority of their lives.

It is a curiosity of Catholic culture, as Weddell goes on to note, that those who do openly talk about Jesus and live enthusiastically in relationship to him can be viewed with suspicion, as ‘Protestant’ in spirit or else pretenders to sanctity (as Weddell concludes ‘we don’t know what normal is’).[14]

In terms of fostering intentional discipleship, an obstacle that can stymie the personal growth of people in our pews is an almost exclusive emphasis on the sacraments which, ironically, can obscure the full life to discipleship for which the sacraments exist. Pope Francis notes in Evangelii Gaudium that in many of our parishes ‘an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelisation’.[15]

This aligns well with the insight of Michael White and Tom Corcoran in Rebuilt when they point out:

. . . baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it.[16]

The point being made by Pope Francis and Rebuilt is that people in our parishes can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. Sacraments only make sense in the context of a life of discipleship; they can never replace it. The problematic is that if the whole concept of ‘discipleship’ is reduced to liturgy or Mass attendance alone, then even the practice of attending Mass is likely to weaken over the long term as the very point of a sacramental life is lost on those participating.

Sacraments nourish a life of discipleship that already exists, they cannot substitute for it. The grace that the sacraments make present needs to be received by a life of faith, by a ‘positive disposition’ as the Church describes it, within the context of a personal relationship to Jesus that opens the heart and will to conversion in love (indeed, some have questioned whether the Catholic Mass while evangelising in principle is often so in practice on account of the uneven religious literacy of our people and the uneven quality of much liturgical music and preaching).

Proclaim 2On the level of formation, the teaching mission we have received from the Gospel, it is worth noting that the emphasis in parish communities has traditionally fallen on the catechesis of children and youth. Understandable we want young people in our parishes for their vibrancy and energy as well as the tangible hope that they bring. However, we need to acknowledge that young people will not be attracted to parishes or communities that show no energy or dynamism in themselves.

We need a parish focus on adult formation as adult Catholics witness to younger Catholics what a mature faith looks like and the formation of adults creates a context which supports the life of faith of everyone in the community (as they say ‘a rising tide floats all boats’).[17] If we want to raise the standard of discipleship in the Church then adults who are prayerful, steeped in Scripture, theologically literate, articulate and committed to justice must be the new norm. Only then, in fact, will the faith of young Catholics naturally aspire to more than intergenerational conformism.

When we consider our parishes, the sources of formation for the majority of those who attend can be limited to essentially the parish bulletin, a homily preached well or otherwise, and perhaps the sign value of the sacraments. We are, if we are honest with ourselves, often relying on the fact that new and established members of our Church are simply ‘putting it all together’ by themselves, an optimism that that is not supported by the reality of parish decline. From observation, people are grasping only fragments and from the outside.

Finally, there can be a predominance of insider thinking, ‘Church world’ as the authors of Rebuilt name it.[18] This rather skewed perspective can be signified by the simple practice of advertising Christmas Mass times in local newspapers. While this is a good and proactive endeavour, it is worth remembering that, in terms of evangelisation, people are not staying away from our Masses because they do not know what time they are on. People are not coming to Mass because they do not see any point in doing so, because they don’t see any connection between what the parish might be offering and their life that they are living or aspired to bring about. If we get caught in insider-thinking as parishes, we can fail to see that people are not going to come to our parishes if they have no idea why they should.

Practices of Growth

This leads us neatly from our challenges to our potential. In light of the trends impacting on our parishes with growing intensity, and the present dynamics of some parish cultures, it is evident that if we want to reach people we have never reached before, we have to be prepared to do things we have never done before, and have a new heart for the Great Commissioning to grow the community of God.

One certainty is that parishes do not grow if leaders and parish teams do not want them to. We cannot assume parish and ministry group leaders want to grow their community when there are no specific plans or intentions to do so. It is interesting to note that emotions in a parish can pour out over changes to buildings, Mass times or parish structure but rarely do they pour out over the absence of newcomers from our pews. Perhaps our hearts can be set on stability rather than growth.

Prayer 1_2

(c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

I was once asked by a parish pastoral council to name the biggest obstacle to evangelisation. In my view it would be a lack of faith that the Gospel is worth sharing. Parish leaders and ministry groups must have the desire to grow, have a renewed belief in Jesus and his Church so that our parish programs and processes may bear fruit. After all, programs do not make disciples; disciples make disciples. As Paul VI intimated, only an evangelised Church evangelises.[19] Our parishes will grow when their leaders grow in faith, in the hope of possibilities unseen, and in a love that grows through the practice of love. A sign of a leader committed to parish growth will be one committed to their own growth in the spiritual life.

As intimated, few parishes have a clear direction for their life, a clear vision for making disciples. We need to work towards parishes, each with its own clarity of purpose. Without an overarching vision or purpose that is shared and owned by the whole community, it is difficult for groups, ministries and members to be united or collaborate, quite simply because no one has ever asked and no one has asked together ‘Where are we going?’

To make this concrete, we might ask ‘what is the vision of your parish for its life over the next three years?’ Catholic parishes do not often articulate such a vision and yet are surprised that the commitment level is so low. Commitment will always be low when there is no direction, no sense of purpose and aspiration for the community. Note also that a vision cannot simply be put on a noticeboard; a vision has to be explained, shared and talked about time and again, explaining ‘where we are going’ on the basis of where we are.

A vision also enables a community to evaluate itself on its performance. If a parish community clearly understands that ‘evangelisation of unchurched Catholics’ is its priority for the next three years, the parish can then ask questions when that doesn’t happen, and try and be more effective in that area. Without a parish vision or purpose, no questions are ever raised and there is no motivation to change and to grow.

In speaking of the need for inspired leadership and a compelling vision, it will come as no surprise that parish planning is a particular focus of mine and a recommendation in bringing about renewal.

While ‘pastoral planning’ sounds less glamorous than many other aspects of Church life, it is indispensable for communities to cultivate the type of discipleship which we seek as a Church in response to God.

All communities need to make plans because wanting to grow is not enough. We need to plan to grow and be explicitly organised to grow the faith of our members as well as to evangelise. Indeed, church research reveals that making no plans for growth results in little or no growth every time.[20] Without a commitment to planning, church communities and ministries do not grow and, in fact, risk decline. The alternative to a vision for growth, as we have said, is directionless and unresponsive routine.

plannerWhen a community has a clear plan, including a vision for where it wants to be in three years’ time, and actions, time frames, and owners of those actions to bring them about, it also becomes possible for parishes to let go of activities and groups that do not make disciples or help them to achieve their goals. Planning reminds a parish that its mission is not to preserve ashes but to keep a fire alive.

In terms of parish evangelisation out of the pews, to the 90% of self-identified Catholics on the margins of our parish life, a first step is to recognise that these ‘unchurched’ Catholics we seek to reach for Christ are not strangers ‘out there’ nor are they statistics without names or faces. The unchurched are in our homes, sitting at the dinner tables of practicing Catholics! They are our relatives, friends, and neighbours who identify as ‘Catholic’ in some way but do not participate in regular worship or intentional acts of Christian service.

It follows that reaching the unchurched is a matter of skilling and empowering practicing Catholics to start the conversation about faith with relatives, friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, as we have noted, resources and practical assistance to prepare our people for this task is rarely found in our parishes.

It is worth noting that some Baptist communities offer workshops to support wives in faith-filled conversations and relationships with their husbands who are often less likely to attend a weekend service. It recognises that evangelisation takes place via the relationships and via the bridges of credibility in our lives. Again, disciples make disciples. We need to form practicing members of our Church to have the confidence in faith, skills and relational sensitivity to reach out to those they know and love with the Good News of the Gospel.

SB054Another key strategy for growth is small groups and Rebuilt affirms this as a direction for all parishes to consider. It is interesting to note that the National Church Life Survey revealed that Australian Catholics, when asked, valued ‘community life’ as one of the most valued aspects of parish life.

However, at the very bottom of this scale was ‘small groups’ and ‘reaching out to others’.[21] And yet, it is precisely by small groups and the invitation of others that most Catholics find their way into the heart of the Church as a community of faith.

Our Catholic masses are often just too large for people to feel instantly at home. Most of us have come into the heart of the Church through a small group of some description, whether that was a youth group, prayer group or other association. Small groups are one way in which people can explore and grow in their faith in the context of a personal and supportive network of disciples.

To make the point a different way, no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. As a Church we are similarly challenged to offer our people the small group they never knew they needed, whether that be a group of prayer and reflection, Scripture study or missionary outreach which develops their personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of others.

Finally, another indispensable measure by which we can focus on the unchurched is to pray that the outreach of the parish will be effective. Prayer brings us to what is most important to us in our life of faith. Praying for the parish mission to be effective, praying that members will reach out to others with joy, praying that relationships will be transformative, places our efforts to evangelise in the heart and hands of God and in the heart and hands of the worshipping community. A parish that is not praying for new members, that does not explicitly name those who the parish is trying to reach for Christ, can be reasonably questioned on the seriousness of its intent.

We can be tempted to feel at times in ministry as if there was not enough time for prayer, but in fact the spiritual tradition tells us that a lack of prayer leads to a lack of time for the things that matter. We need to pray so our hearts desire growth. Once our hearts desire that goal, we will find the time and take the action needed to see our parishes grow in life and measure.

Conclusion

Liturgy 1We have surveyed the pastoral reality and underlined the need of our parishes to grow as the foundation of the Australian Church.

We have retrieved the need for parishes to set themselves the goal of actual growth in faith as well as numerical growth in response to Jesus’ commission to the Church. We have seen the consequences of a ‘no growth’ mentality and of assuming our people are becoming disciples by the sacraments alone.

We have affirmed the need for leaders with a heart and vision for growth, parish communities with an explicit and articulated purpose, formation that focuses on and talks about discipleship and conversion, small groups to create the bonds of faith that grow discipleship, and communities that pray for and implore the graces of God in this mission.

As Pope Francis remarks, ‘[God] always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve’.[22]

As parishes we need to look sincerely at our life and be willing to continue to grow, all the while imploring the graces of God. In the light of our reality and in the light of faith, we must desire to make disciples and proclaim boldly that in the face of human needs God has provided a response in the person of Jesus. May we live this mission well in the service of the Gospel and in the service of humankind.

* You can download a PDF of this workshop presentation here. As mentioned, I also offered some thoughts on the content of the ideal parish pastoral plan. You can download the sample parish plan here. With best wishes in your ministry and mission, Daniel

 

References

[1] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 8.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2-3.

[4] Pastoral Research Office E-News Bulletin, ‘Issue 18: Who goes to Mass? – First results from the 2011 NCLS – 2 December 2012’. Available online at http://www.pro.catholic.org.au/pdf/ACBC%20PRO%20E-News%20Bulletin%2018.pdf. Accessed 4 August, 2014.

[5] Dixon, Reid and Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment, 4; Robert Dixon and Stephen Reid, ‘The Contemporary Catholic Community: A View from the 2011 Census’, Australasian Catholic Record 90/2 (2013): 144-146.

[6] Dr Robert Dixon, ‘The Catholic Community in  Australia: Context and Challenges’, Presentation at the Pastoral Research Office Conference: ‘Beliefs and Practices of Australian Catholics’, 20 February, 2014.

[7] Lumen Gentium 17.

[8] Thomas Merton, Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (London: SPCK, 2003), 2.

[9] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Henri de Lubac, ‘Christian Explanation of our Times’ in Theology in History, translated by Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 452.

[12] John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte 33.

[13] Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 62.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 63.

[16] Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 77.

[17] Cf. Jane Regan, Toward an Adult Church: A Vision of Faith Formation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002).

[18] White and Corcoran, Rebuilt, 43.

[19] Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 15.

[20] See Ed Stetzer and Mike Dobson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 71–2.

[21] Dr Claudia Mollidor, ‘Parish Life – Who’s Involved and Why?’, Presentation at the Pastoral Research Office Conference: ‘Beliefs and Practices of Australian Catholics’, 20 February, 2014.

[22] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 153.